What a thrill the opening ceremony was watching all-time Major League home run champion Hank Aaron walk arm-in-arm with, and be handed the ceremonial first pitch ball by, the all-time Japan home run champion and 2006 Japanese manager, Sadaharu Oh. Hank delivered the first pitch to the Cuban catcher, Ariel Pestano, a veteran of international play and one of the key components of Cuba’s incredible run in the tournament.
The crowds were a big part of the story at the World Baseball Classic. Here is a group of fans of the Cuban team at the final in San Diego.
Japan was one U.S. victory over Mexico from elimination in Round 2, and Cuba escaped first-round elimination by Ruben Rivera of Panama instinctively jumping out of the way of a pitch that would have forced in the winning run. And although a runner-up in the first two rounds, Japan prevailed tonight and became the first World Baseball Classic champion, beating Cuba, 10-6. Cuba fought back the whole game, even getting within one run in the eighth inning, but could not overcome the uncharacteristic shaky start by three Cuban pitchers in a marathon first half-inning as Japan put up four runs ( 350K) before Cuba ever came to bat.
A sellout crowd seemed pretty split in their loyalties, although the Cuban fans made much more noise. On the other hand, the Japanese fans were noticably more demonstrative than they were in the games in the Tokyo Dome in Round 1, even in the deciding game against rival Korea, and became increasingly noisy as the game wore on.
Too many dignitaries were here tonight to begin to list them, although we were joined by Mayor Williams of D.C. again and senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Commissioner Negoro of Japan was on hand to accept the winning trophy from Commissioner Selig. What a thrill the opening ceremony was watching all-time Major League home run champion Hank Aaron walk arm-in-arm with, and be handed the ceremonial first pitch ball by, the all-time Japan home run champion and the Japanese manager, Sadaharu Oh. Hank delivered the first pitch to the Cuban catcher, Ariel Pestano, a veteran of international play and one of the key components of Cuba’s incredible run in the tournament.
It was also another big weekend for the Habitat for Humanity site here at the ballpark. On Sunday, in a remarkable show of sportsmanship and compassion, both the Cuban and Japanese teams showed up and autographed the houses and offered their support. On Monday morning, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield graciously got up in the middle of the night and was at the site at 5 a.m. for a "Today" show appearance promoting the event and the Habitat buildout. And at a press conference just before the game, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America unveiled its new anti-steroid PSA ( 350K) in partnership with MLB, following on the heels of last year’s very successful crumbling statue PSA, at a press conference with Commissioner Selig and Steve Passierb, President and CEO of PDFA.
Ratings have stayed good. In Japan, the Japan/Korea game Saturday night averaged a 36.2 and peaked at over a 50 share. Since today is a holiday in Japan, I assume tonight’s rating will be a monster as well. Noby Ito of the NPB and winning Japan delegation predicted an even bigger number than Saturday night. And there is no reason to think that the Cuban ratings have fallen from their 90 share. Domestically, we more than held our own, even against the NCAAs on Saturday and even without the U.S. team in the semifinals. And whatever short-term rating loss we may have suffered at home by having Cuba and Japan in the finals, or because ESPN joined the game in-progress tonight, we made up for in long-term event credibility.
Even though I thanked them during one of my early blogs from Japan, I would be wrong to not again say what a phenomenal job our International Department did to a person in pulling off the logistics of this first-time event, led by Senior Vice President Paul Archey. His entire staff has run itself ragged for the past three months to ensure as few snafus as possible, and to accommodate the needs of 17 different baseball federations, 16 different rosters, thousands of press, multiple broadcast partners and almost 750,000 fans in six different venues. I also would again acknowledge the role and efforts of the MLBPA, from Don Fehr and Gene Orza to their staff and those who served on the technical committee. In fact, the entire technical committee deserves enormous credt for seeing this through without incident.
Thanks to the IBAF: President Aldo Notari, who was at most of the games, and Miguel Ortin, who was also at many, for their leadership and for administering the drug-testing program. My thanks to our promoters in Japan and San Juan, and our hosts in Orlando, Phoenix and San Diego for their fine work, and to mlb.com for its coverage of the event and sale of tickets, including moving a lot of tickets the last weekend in the secondary market when the final pairings were set. Productions and broadcasting were everwhere and I am sure a great DVD will be shortly forthcoming, up to their Emmy-winning standards. Our special-events people were also terrific, having to pull this together at a number of disparate venues and not knowing which teams would advance often until the day before they would travel to the next site. And I also would like to acknowledge the fine work MLB’s entire security staff did throughout, particularly given the unique participation by both China and Cuba and the protocols that required. But all in all, I know I speak for all of the people I just mentioned in saying we are all honored to have been involved in this and will look back in 20 years and say we were in on the ground floor of a great international compeitition that celebrated the great game of baseball and took it to a new level.
I also thank all of you for your passion and interest. No shock that I found your comments more interesting than what I wrote. They were, for the most part, very thoughtful, even when they disagreed with the event or how it was run, and many of your suggestions and ideas will be reviewed as we look at doing this again. I will close this with my choices for various "awards" for the inaugural World Baseball Classic. I welcome your continuing suggestions for improvement of the event.
Get ready for an exciting 2006 Major League Season, and we will see you in 2009. Best wishes.
First Hit – Hee Seop Choi (Korea) – Double, in the second inning against Taipei.
First home run – Wei Wang (China) – Game 1 against Japan ( 350K).
Most Impressive Performance (Team) – Korea going all seven games that it played without an error
Most Impressive Performance (Player) – Seventeen-year-old Shairon Martis (Netherlands), who pitched a seven-inning, complete-game no-hitter against Panama, facing just 22 batters, allowing one walk and recording the final out on his last allowable 65th pitch, inducing a double-play grounder.
Most Exciting Play – Adam Stern (Canada) – inside-the-park home run against U.S. in Canada’s stunning win ( 350K)
Best Defensive Play – Jin Young Lee (Korea) – A catch ( 350K) against Japan in right field in the first game between the two teams at Tokyo Dome, which kept Korea in the game at the time and allowed its winning rally.
Most ironic event – Seung Yeop Lee (Korea) hit a home run ( 350K) to beat Japan in Round 1 in Tokyo. He plays for defending Japanese champion Chiba Lotte Marines during the regular season.
Biggest disappointment – U.S. going 3-3.
Biggest controversy – Two questionable calls, by the same American umpire, that went in favor of the U.S. in two critical games.
Narrowest escape – Cuba, which might not have advanced to Round 2 if Ruben Rivera had not avoided being hit by a pitch in the ninth inning of the game between Cuba and Panama.
Best food (overall) – San Diego’s PETCO Park
Best food (single item) – Plantain Chips (Hiram Bithorn)
Biggest deal with smallest impact – Pitch-count restrictions
Rule I would most like to see changed for next time – Crossover pairings in semifinals
Best Quote #1 – Commissioner Bud Selig: "Baseball was born in America, but now it belongs to the world."
Best Quote #2 – Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, U.S. Ambassador to Japan in discussing why China will be a long-term force in international baseball: "Remember that in China, when you are one in a million, there are 1,300 of you."
Best Quote #3 – Steve Hirdt, Elias Sports Bureau: "Next year, we’ll all be missing the World Baseball Classic," quoted by Tom Verducci on SI.com.
Reasons to do the event again – Every player who committed to the event and every fan who was enthusiastic throughout
Reasons to not do the event – Myopia
Two months ago, we did not even know if Cuba would be able to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, as permission was initially denied by the State Department. Putting politics aside, there is no question that from a competitive standpoint they belong, advancing to the finals Monday by doing to the Dominican Republic what they did Wednesday night to Puerto Rico — beating a team 3-1 that had handled them easily in the preceding round. And they did it with something old and something new — Pedro Lazo
( 350K), the 32-year-old veteran of three Olympics and several World Championships, and Yadel Marti, the young right-hander who has yet to give up an earned run in the tournament. The Dominican team, winners of each of its two earlier rounds, squandered chance after chance and had the heart of its lineup up twice with multiple runners on base but could only score one run off the two Cuban pitchers. The two-run margin of victory seemed luxurious, since each of the four games that allowed the four semifinalists to advance were one-run games (Korea/Japan; U.S./Mexico; D.R./Venezuela; Cuba/Puerto Rico).
My mistake yesterday. I should have reread my manual on the way out to San Diego. The rules called for six umpires for the semifinals and finals so there were six umpires working both games today, and the games seemed to be decided without any serious controversy. Another fact I did not know until I attended the umpire briefing this afternoon: The games in this final round are played to conclusion. There can be no tie. But — if, in the opinion of the Technical Committee on hand, the pitching staffs of both teams are depleted due to a very long extra-inning game — the Committee could suspend the game to be completed tomorrow when the pitchers become eligible to pitch again. Given that the teams each only had one or two pitchers unavailable today and tonight, that would have required a game probably more than 20 innings so it is not a rule that would ever be likely to be invoked.
Tonight we had the first decisive win in what seems like a week. Contrary to the song lyrics, tonight in the seventh inning in Southern California it rained — runs for Japan ( 350K) and drops on the field and on fans. Until then, it had been a great defensive struggle with neither team mustering up much offense. At the end of the day, Korea could not pull the hat-trick and beat Japan three straight times. Korea had a great tournament and cleary is a force in international baseball. And its fans tonight were terrific. Most of the stadium was decked out in Korean gear and they cheered every pitch and play even when their heroes went down, 5-0. They even cheered throughout a 45-minute rain delay in the eighth inning and right until the last out of the game.
The Padres have been great hosts. Owner John Moores, club president Sandy Alderson, **** Freeman, Jeff Overton, Richard Andersen and countless others have interrupted their Spring Training and season preparation and put on a great show — even with the rain. Commissioner Selig was on hand today, along with a gaggle of Club owners and officials — I saw Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino of the Red Sox, Vince Naimoli of the Devil Rays, Eddie Einhorn of the World Series champion White Sox, and there may have been others. Don Fehr of the MLBPA is here for the weekend as is Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington and his wife. What has been done with Petco Park and the surrounding area is a perfect model for the Anacostia area in D.C. The ballpark is the centerpiece of massive vibrant commercial and residential growth and urban rejuvenation.
Had fun at the Habitat for Humanity event this morning. I can’t say my carpentry skills have improved with age. San Diego Mayor Sanders (pictured) was on hand, along with Alderson from the Padres, and Bob Tjosvold from sponsor Bank of America — which has been such a terrific supporter of Baseball throughout the country, and so generous in the community helping with so many events like the Habitat event today. I also had the privilege of meeting Chris Clarke, a senior vice president from Habitat from Humanity, who has been so helpful to us since MLB’s project inception in Houston last July, and Cheryl Keenan, the San Diego executive director for Habitat for Humanity.
So it is two teams largely unknown to U.S. fans before this event that are in the first World Baseball Classic finals. Both are very disciplined, execute every phase of the game well, and have gotten good pitching in every game that mattered. I think Japan will win a low-scoring game, but I thought the Dominican Republic would make the finals so . . . let’s see what happens Monday night. Tune in — it will be fun.
Okay. I guess I am flattered that some of you are complaining I did not write anything about last night, but the deal was that I was writing about the locations I was at. I spent yesterday flying back from San Juan to NY, worked in the office (for the first time in almost two weeks) until game time last night, and then flew today to San Diego. But I do have some comments, even if a day late (and probably more than a dollar short):
1. I was struck by how excited the Mexican team and their fans were after the game, even though they had been eliminated. Beating the U.S. team was obviously a big deal. They played and pitched well, and executed when they had to. Vinny Castilla moved a lot quicker than most 38-year-olds with a bum knee.
2. Even though it was the difference in the game, I was glad my fellow MLBlogger Jorge Cantu drove in Mario Valenzuela with the run in the third inning ( 350K). The replays were clear about the ball hitting the foul pole at least eight or 10 feet up the pole. There was no question it should have been a home run. It would have been brutal to the long-term credibility of this event if the U.S. team advanced on two questionable calls in two different games in the second round. Maybe these games are already significant enough that we should use foul-line umpires like we do in the playoffs and All-Star Game. I think back to the first exciting Dominican Republic/Venezuela game in Orlando, where the third base umpire, Fred van Gronigen, from The Netherlands correctly called a ball in play off the outfield wall that could have been called a home run and impacted the outcome of that game and perhaps the round. The call last night was missed, pure and simple.
3. Roger Clemens put on a gritty performance
( 350K) and probably deserved a better fate. From a personal standpoint, I hope he comes back sometime this year. His retirement will leave a hole in the game.
4. I think the biggest surprise to me is not that the U.S. team lost this game, necessarily, but that it ended up 3-3 over six games. I don’t think anyone thought it was a .500 team, even with the injuries and non-participating players. It does demonstrate how much better competition has gotten worldwide. Although that should not be a shock, I guess, when you consider that Ichiro won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards his first year in the Major Leagues, and Chan Ho Park and Hee Seop Choi have certainly performed at a high level since coming to the States. One point to those who are posting that the U.S. was arrogant and that players A, B and C should have played: Remember, this was a voluntary signup. Some players chose not to participate because they did not feel ready physically and others because they just did not want to play, not because they were not "chosen." Could some of them have helped? Sure. But if you look at the roster that was assembled and the starting lineup that went out on the field, there is no team in the Major Leagues that would not like to field that team during the season.
Interestingly, the newest ESPN SportsNation poll has 78 percent believing that the U.S. loss will be a neutral or a positive in that it will drive interest in other countries, and 77 percent are still interested in the remaining games. The ratings last night were 2.1 on ESPN, meaning that almost 2.5 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched game of the Classic so far in the United States. It was the most watched cable show among men 18-49 and 25-54 yesterday, against, of course, the strong competition of the NCAA Tournament.
As I said, we arrived in San DIego this afternoon. The weather is cool but, more significantly, as I write this it is pouring rain. The forecast for tomorrow is dicey. I hope that if we get a game started, we can finish it. Given the format of the event, it would be a shame to get a game washed out or suspended. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for tomorrow.
As I mentioned last week, I agree with the posters who would prefer to see cross-over semifinals, i.e, Cuba vs. Korea and Dominican Republic vs. Japan, with the winners meeting Monday. I hope that will be on the agenda to review for 2009.
Rain or shine, we will be out at the Habitat for Humanity site tomorrow morning along with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and officials from the host San Diego Padres. The buildout at the All-Star Game last July in Houston got a lot of coverage as we built a number of homes that were shipped to the Gulf Coast, and this weekend, three more will be built and shipped to the same area. Some of the players have agreed to help out on Sunday in a terrific show of international compassion and sportsmanship. I will try to post a picture tomorrow night.
Think whatever you want about this first World Baseball Classic, but the first two rounds of ’06 Clasico Mundial de Beisbol came to a close tonight in San Juan with a game as intense and interesting as any game, anywhere, between any two teams, as Cuba advanced to the semifinals, avenging last week’s loss to Puerto Rico when it counted in a thrilling 4-3 win.
Lots of tension tonight on and off the field. First, the Cubans had been sent a sheet of paper today that mistakenly listed them as the home team. As I mentioned last week, home and visitor were determined for the first two rounds by draw. That draw — which was observed by a Cuban representative — had Cuba as the visitor tonight. Unfortunately, the observor was back in Cuba, so the team wanted to rely on the paper they had received.
Once that mini-crisis was resolved, the game started, and in the first inning, the first argument of the night occurred — about the location of the ballboy of all things. Cuba contended he was too close to a direct line behind the plate; Puerto Rico responded that he was where he had always been. People got more exercised than the issue seemed to warrant. The ballboy moved a few feet, and the game actually proceeded.
Things got really hot in the bottom of the seventh, when second base umpire James Hoye called the Puerto Rican baserunner safe when the Cuban shortstop was pulled off the bag on a force play, allowing a run to score and leaving two men on with none out. The Cuban manager, Higinio Velez, complete with intepreter in tow, came out and argued the play vociferously and when he refused to stop arguing he was thrown out of the game. (The interpreter was allowed to stay). The bench partially emptied, and it took some time for order to be restored, with the crowd roaring the entire time.
Replays showed Hoye clearly made the correct call. This was not a "neighborhood" play where the pivotman is given the benefit of the doubt. The throw was wide, and the shortstop was pulled off the bag when he caught the ball. When the dust settled, Puerto Rico scored one more run and had the tying run thrown out at the plate to end the inning on a perfectly executed relay play. The final argument of the night occurred in the eighth inning when the Cuban first baseman Barrero bobbled a throw in the dirt and the runner was called safe. Again, replays showed umpire Rob Drake made the right call, but that did not stop Barrero from jumping four feet in the air several times and complaining about the call.
The real mystery tonight was which Cuban team would show up, the one that got thumped by Puerto Rico last Friday in a game that did not matter — or the one that handled a Major League star-laden Venezuela team on the opening day of Round 2. And at the end, it was the latter. The Cubans were much more animated and spent the entire game standing and rooting on the top step. And they don’t make many mistakes on the field.
By the way, from what I can glean from our information, meetings with Cuban officials, the story in today’s USA Today, and conversations with IBAF officials, this is not a team of Cuban second-stringers, as has been suggested in some of the postings. These are the best players Cuba has to offer, including perhaps the best player from the island, second baseman Yulieski Gourriel. Their whole lineup is made up of veterans of international play.
I don’t think you get to see the anthems on television from all of the games, and they are pretty cool. All four flags of the participating teams are together, along with a flag with the Classic logo. In addition, there is a flag for each of the two competing teams at the head of their lineup along the baselines. They play the anthem of each of the teams and the host country. Tonight, all that was followed with a five-minute firework display that got the crowd even more frenzied before the game started.
Responding to some of the news today, ESPN the Magazine is just plain wrong in stating that somehow our drug testing protocol for this event is less that the WADA standards, or is in some way deficient. From the very start, it was imperative that we have a drug testing program that complied with international standards (i.e., WADA) so as to avoid any chance that any countries would run the risk of losing certification by participating in a non-sanctioned international event. The MLBPA agreed to these standards long before the negotiations last year that resulted in MLB’s new comprehensive 50/100/life drug program agreed to during the off-season and in effect this season. The testing program in our event is being run and administered by the International Baseball Federation. This list of substances that was submitted to the players was taken off the WADA web site. That the list may now have been amended is frankly irrelevant and a red herring, and not our responsibility.
Some media got out in front of our discussions here about Major League games continuing in San Juan. The fans here have been great. The promoter has done a terrific job. He would like to bring more games to the island. We are disposed to do so, and have talked to him about it, but we need teams and schedules that would accommodate it. We certainly will look hard at 2007 and 2008 for a limited number of games, and if we can squeeze some in this year, we are not opposed to reviewing that. Up to now, however, we have spoken to no teams about giving up home games to travel here to host a series or two.
Good coverage in USA Today on Wednesday. In addition to the Cuban story mentioned above, there are two stories about the nascent event’s popularity. I think it is also interesting to read the evolution of the postings to my reports. They have gone from issues the first couple of days about whether the players would try and skirt the pitch count restrictions (which has generally proven to be an irrelevancy), to real unhappiness that not all the games have been televised on readily accessible cable outlets in realtime. While none of us likes to disappoint any fans, for a maiden voyage, that’s a back-handed compliment. If no one wanted to watch, our problem would be much more serious. This one is remediable in 2009.
On to San Diego where, I am sure to the surprise of many US fans, at least two of the teams will be predominantly or totally made up of non-Major League Players.
In a game that clearly had the atmosphere of the playoff game that it was from start to finish before a largely pro-Dominican and very noisy crowd of 13,000, the Dominican Republic escaped with a 2-1 victory over Venezuela tonight and became the first semifinalist in the first World Baseball Classic. Manager Manny Acta, along with Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada, Bartolo Colon, Moises Alou, David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, are on their way to San Diego.
By about the seventh inning, people started to inquire about what would happen if the game ended in a 1-1 tie after 14 innings. Fortunately, it never came close to that, but if I understand the rules, assuming there was not a tie in the game tomorrow night, it would have come down to batting average in tonight’s game to determine the winner since head-to-head, runs and earned runs would all have been equal. But there were lots of nervous moments to the very end, with Venezuela leaving the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. Dominican pitcher Daniel Cabrera was dominant over the first four innings, allowing no hits and getting readings in the high 90s for his fast ball, and Venezuela continued to have trouble hitting, getting only a single hit off the five Dominican pitchers — a fifth-inning double by Omar Vizquel.
For those who are curious, Hiram Bithorn Stadium is located near the Roberto Clemente Sports City complex in the northern section of San Juan, about 20 minutes from the airport. It holds 19,000 fans and is 325 feet down both lines and 404 feet to dead center field. It was named in 1962 after the first Puerto Rican-born player in the Major Leagues, right-handed pitcher Hiram Bithorn, who played for the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox from 1942-1947. MLB opened its season at Hiram Bithorn in 2001 in a game between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, and the Expos of course played 43 games here during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, drawing just under 530,000 fans over that span. During the winter league season, it plays host to the Santurce Crabbers.
They have four numbers retired in the stadium, Bithorn’s (#25), Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente (#21) and Orlando Cepeda (#30), and Puerto Rican great and New York Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez (#22). Gomez was among the league leaders in games started, completed games, shutouts and earned runs allowed several times during his 10-year career. Each night on the Jumbotron here, they show a video tribute to Clemente, and every night his throws from the right-field corner to third base seemingly while off-balance and on the run look more and more incredible.
Everyone is staying in three hotels on Isla Verde, an area about five minutes from the airport. The development and construction going on is impressive. There seems to be a crane on every block. When I used to come here in the late ’70s, there were only two hotels in this area, the El San Juan and a Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn was shaped like a U, and you could stay facing the courtyard, where a band played each night until 2 a.m., or on the outside, where you heard the planes arrive and depart all night. Now, there must be 20 hotels and as many condominium projects.
Some continuing really good coverage for the Classic:
- For those of you who missed the ESPN SportsNation poll, 70 percent of the respondents indicated that the Classic was "better than they expected" and 82 percent rated it either a "smashing" or "modest" success. Surprisingly to me based on press commentary, almost 50 percent indicated that the current schedule is the best time to hold the tournament, vs. only 30 percent who want it played after the season. And 85 percent either raved about the one-game format or acknowledged it was the only practical way to go.
- Cuban officials told us today that their television ratings for the Cuban games are 90 percent and that workers were given an official holiday for the team’s first game in the tournament.
- Tom Verducci of SI.com wrote a great piece about the event and one paragraph in particular resonated with me and seemed to pick up the thread many of the posters to these blogs have established:
"If you want your millionaire players to dive for pop-ups, run the bases with abandon, watch the entire game like Little Leaguers from the top step of the dugout and play the game for pride and for fun, just like American Legion ball…the (World Baseball Classic) is your ticket to happiness. To a man, the U.S. players have raved about the experience. Chipper Jones, a World Series champion and MVP, called the (Classic) ‘the best baseball experience of my life — bar none’."
Tom also has an interesting comparison between the different styles of the different teams in the tournament, which is worth reading.
While the United States did not play tonight, the outcome of the Japan/Mexico game means they need help to qualify for the semifinals. Again, if my math is right, they either need Korea to beat Japan or Japan to win and score eight runs or more tomorrow and then beat Mexico to advance, in the first instance with Korea and in the second with Japan. There is also a way to advance if the U.S. loses to Mexico and if Korea beats Japan, but the permutations of what happens with three teams at 1-2 I will leave to others. Also, if Japan wins tomorrow, 7-6, in nine innings and the U.S. beats Mexico, the three teams will be 2-1 with each having allowed 10 runs in the games involving the tied teams, so it would go to earned runs allowed. I think that all sorts out, but the best part is that the four teams will likely decide it on the field the next two nights as will Cuba and Puerto Rico in the final decisive game down here.
I am somewhat puzzled by the postings complaining that games have been switched around by ESPN to viewers’ disadvantage. When we signed up with ESPN, we took every available slot they had given the constraints of their existing schedule. All games went on ESPN Desportes, which obviously does not yet have the carriage of the other ESPN networks. Last Sunday, ESPN added a game to ESPN2 to present a triple-header, given the popularity of the games, but did not subtract any games. And, of course, all of the games have been available live via MLB.com, and on XM Radio. I guess it is a good sign that people want to see all of the games and we will certainly take that into account in 2009 in working with our broadcast partners in providing coverage.
Another perfect weather day here in San Juan. The only rain was between games, and since the first game did not start until 3 p.m., you could get in a whole day of work or beach or sun before going to the ballpark.
As suggested last night, the four teams in this bracket are now each 1-1, which sets up an intriguing set of two one-game playoffs over the next two nights. The winning team in tomorrow’s game between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and the winning team between Cuba and Puerto Rico on Thursday are on their way to San Diego on Saturday to face each other in one of the semifinal games. It also means that one team will advance from each of the Orlando and San Juan pools from Round 1. There, the Dominicans beat Veneuzuela in the first game of the round-robin and Puerto Rico beat Cuba in the last game of Round 1 in a game that did not matter since both teams were advancing. It should be two great games.
In the first game today, the Cubans started as if they were going to pick up where they left off, but they squandered a golden opportunity in the first inning. Meanwhile, the Dominicans also started slowly, going out in order the first two innings. But gradually, the Dominicans dominated both at the plate and on the mound.
The political protestors today got more innovative. First, there was a hired plane that flew around the outside of the stadium for about 15 minutes trailing an anti-Castro banner that was much more aggressive than last night’s T-shirt protest. Frankly, no one in the crowd of over 14,000 seemed to pay any attention to it. Then a row of fans behind home plate took off their shirts to expose T-shirts underneath with the same negative slogan. The security people stepped in and the event was over in a matter of moments. Interestingly, many in the largely local crowd stood up and shouted "Get out" in Spanish to the protestors.
All of the capacity crowd, the noise, the thunder sticks, the music and the magic did not work for the Puerto Rican bats tonight as they were shut out by Venezuela. Carlos Zambrano looked to be in midseason form, throwing 96 mph fastballs and striking out five in his stint. Puerto Rico had its chances, particularly in the seventh inning where local favorite (actually I guess they are all local favorites) Ivan Rodriquez made the final out, leaving the tying runs at the time on base.
A response to a few of the postings:
1. Several fans have looked ahead and seen that the semifinals are the winner of each Round 2 vs. their respective runner-up, rather than cross over winner of Pool 1 vs. runner-up of Pool 2 and vice-versa. They complain that if the two best teams in the tournament come out of one flight, they should meet again only in the finals. I think the complaint is valid. We did it this way because while we believed the tournament would be a success, and that people would watch, we wanted to maximize regional interest in the semifinals for television. The popularity of the event seemingly ensured, I think the cross-over semifinals is the right way to go.
2. Umpires. A few posters have complained about U.S. umpires working U.S. games. Remember, Major Leaguers comprise the bulk of many of the Latin and Canadian rosters, so it was not just a U.S. issue. Given that over half of the total players in the event came from Major League 40-man rosters, given that we were using the Major League Rulebook, and again given that this was a first-time event, we were comfortable using the experienced U.S. umpires in that environment. In fact, the teams in the Asian pool specifically requested U.S. umpires for Round 1 in Tokyo. As we move forward with future versions of the tournament, I am sure we can incorporate more international umpires.
As an aside, while I do not know whether the call in the Japan/U.S. game last night was correct, I am absolutely certain Bob Davidson made the call he believed was correct at the time, without any regard whatsoever for the participants. Bob is a veteran Major League umpire who I am sure instinctively made the call he felt was correct. It is just unfair to question his integrity in any way.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, my father often got assigned to referee the New England High School Hockey Tournament in Providence each spring as one of the two referees assigned from Connecticut. He used to dread getting assigned a Connecticut team in a game, not because he was concerned he would be accused of favoring that team but because he was concerned that subconsciously he would not make a close call for the Connecticut team. He was always relieved when the games ended without a controversy.
3. Some press reported today that overall attendance may be "short of projections." Actually, based on presales we thought we could get close to 800,000. With over 70 percent of the games played, we will probably end up close to 750,000, the only difference being the three "day" games (i.e. non-Japan) in Round 1 in Japan, which each drew only 5,000 in the 50,000-seat Tokyo dome, well short of the promoter’s projections. The other first-round venues and second-round sales have met or exceeded our projections, which also belies the contention that fans around the world care more about the Classic than U.S. fans. Frankly, I think the only skeptics are/were the U.S. media, and many of them have come around.
See you tomorrow.
Well, did I ever get the good draw on weather. Eighty degrees, light breeze and back to beautiful San Juan and Hiram Bithorn Stadium. (Apparently the hats and mittens are out in Anaheim.) The ballpark here looks even better than it did for the Expos’ games two and three years ago, or for the opener in 2001 when Toronto faced Texas. Congratulations to Murray Cook and his staff and the promoter Antonio Munoz and his staff for their terrific work getting everything ready.
Venezuela went into a slump its third game in Orlando, squeezing by Australia by only 2-0. Today they faced the tougher Cuban pitching staff and their hitting woes continued. The game was really decided over a six-out span from the bottom of the fifth to the top of the sixth. Venezuela loaded the bases in the fifth trailing only 1-0. Two weak fly balls and a strikeout later, veteran pitcher Pedro Lazo had worked out of a real jam. A couple of sloppy plays in the top of the sixth and the massive three-run home run by Cepeda followed by the solo shot by Pestano and the game was out of reach instead of only 2-0 as it should have been.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the game was that the crowd of almost 14,000 was evenly split in cheering interest (and flags) between Venezuela and Cuba. After the Venezuelans were all-world in enthusiasm in Orlando, the mixed crowd was a surprise as was the source of all the Cuban support. Thanks to the policy of removing signs from fans as they enter the stadium, there was no signage visable except for seven T-shirted fans who sat down the left-field line and stood anytime Cuba did anything noteworthy on the field and between innings. Their shirts, read left to right with two letters each, spelled Vi-va Cu-ba Li-br-e. They were surrounded by security the entire time and sat when asked. No further commotion ensued. In fact, security is terrific here. It is always present, yet never obtrusive.
Someone posted that we missed an opportunity to make a political statement by not allowing anti-Castro signs and that somehow we had impinged on fans’ free speech rights. I disagree. If we had wanted to make a political statement, Cuba would not have been invited in the first place. The goal was to put the best teams in the world on the field. This is about baseball as it is played around the world, not ideologies. Our tournament rules clearly prohibited flags over a certain size or any offensive or political signs, just as we do in the Major Leagues. We were just applying our rules.
For those who wrote that the U.S. had an easy route to the finals, only A-Rod’s ninth-inning heroics staved off a possible Japan win today. But for the controversial call in the eighth, they might have gone extra innings or Japan might even have won.
Even a rain shower could not dampen the sold-out crowd’s enthusiasm for the big game tonight between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One veteran player told Ambassador Lasorda this was the biggest game he had ever played in, including World Series games. While maybe the player was caught up in the excitement of the moment, perhaps that is exactly the point. There was electricity in the air throughout the game and the players clearly are caught up with playing for their countries. The noise of the crowd after Puerto Rico scored three runs each in the sixth and seventh innings was the equal of playoff noise in the Houston or Angels ballparks, with half the number of people in attendance. In the seventh inning, the panderetas came out and a troupe peformed the plena. You would not know Lent was under way since it was truly a carnivale with dancers, costumes, big-headed masks and lots of noise.
The game was well attended. Aldo Notari, president of the International Baseball Federation, was on hand along with Puerto Rico’s Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila and Mayor Santini of San Juan. Javier Vazquez and Bartolo Colon did a great job for the first five innings, each giving up a single run, but the Dominican bullpen could not hang on and Puerto Rico pulled away.
I was thinking the way these teams are playing that it is entirely possible the four teams would be 1-1 after tomorrow. That would in essence set up the last two games in the round-robin as a pair of single-game playoffs to determine which two teams would advance. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.
On the field before Game 1 of the first round in Tokyo, from left to right: John McHale Jr., me, Tommy Lasorda and Peter O’Malley.