Wednesday, March 13, 2013


                   Think you’re a good sports fan? Okay, here’s a one-question quiz, and no peeking, please. What’s the WBC?
                   It’s an easier question than you might think because there are at least three correct answers. One is the World Boxing Council, one of the agencies that misregulates the ring sport. Another is the World Badminton Championships , which is… well, that should be apparent.
                  The answer I’m looking for is the World Baseball Classic, which will conclude over the next several days. The final, in AT&T Park in San Francisco, will match the survivors of a 28-nation go-round that began with qualifying rounds last year. In this month’s deciding skirmishes 16 national teams faced off in pool play, the eight survivors went on to some confusing elimination matches, and the Terminal Two will play for the title on Tuesday, March 19. The winner can declare itself champion of the world, to whomever is listening.

                It’s an odd tournament, one made odder still by that fact that it’s staged in the early spring (late winter, actually) when the sport is just cranking up. It’s there because Major League Baseball, the game’s major engine, can’t (won’t) fit it in at any other time. 
                So why bother, you might ask? Because MLB was miffed when the Olympics dropped baseball as an official sport in 2005 after a five-Games run, deciding (1) that it really wasn’t a world sport and (2) that it was too expensive to stage, requiring the big field with stadium around it that most host countries lack.  For a change the Olympic honchos were right, but that counted for little with egos at stake.
                The WBC tournaments that have been completed to date—in 2006 and 2009--only have underlined that point.  The Japanese won both of them, mostly, I think, because they cared the most. The U.S., the game’s physical and spiritual home, never has finished higher than fourth (in ’09), partly because some of its better players have been indifferent toward the event, treating it in much the same manner as some National Football League stars treat their league’s post-season All-Star game, as an injury trap to be avoided.   
            Asserting the U.S’s baseball superiority isn’t mere chauvinism; even at a time when MLB has become truly international, boasting the best players from a dozen lands, more than 70% of them are Yanks, and several of the 16 teams in the WBC besides the U.S. have large American contingents. A couple of the others—Spain and The Netherlands-- wouldn’t be there without help from players from the Caribbean.

Indeed, without stretching the definition of nationality past recognition it would have been hard to hold the tournament at all. Citizenship in a country isn’t required to play for it; just having a great-grandparent born there suffices. In the case of Israel every Jew is eligible.  American Jewish big-leaguers Ian Kinsler and Kevin Youklis had expressed an interest in representing their ancestral homeland, and if the qualifying rounds hadn’t been in September, while their pennant races were in progress, the country might have made the field of 16. Too bad.

The best example of how goofy the who-to-play-for game can get is David Hernandez, a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and speaks only English, but has a great-grandmother from Mexico, so when that nation invited him to join its team he said yes. At the last moment he couldn’t find abuela’s papers, and when the U.S. then said it wanted him for its squad he said okay again, and was in the bullpen when the U.S. played Mexico last week.

One first-round series of the WBC was staged in and around Phoenix, and since I’m there I dropped by to see what was up. The U.S. team was scheduled to play in the Diamondbacks’ domed home of Chase Field, but ticket prices for their games started at $60 and I’m too cheap for that. Instead, I anted up 30 bucks to watch Canada face Italy at the spring-training park Salt River Fields, which is about 10 minutes from my Scottsdale home. When it dawned rainy that day they changed the venue to Chase, so I and Harvey Volin, my snowbird pal from Denver, had to schlep downtown to see it.

I went with some trepidation, expecting the Italian team to consist of a bunch of guys from the Bronx named Vinnie.  ‘Twasn’t so. While 19 of Italy’s 28 squad members listed U.S. hometowns, several gen-u-ine Italians played, including the 24-year-old third baseman Alex Liddi, of Sanremo, the first man born and raised in the country to play in the U.S. Major Leagues, with the Seattle Mariners. He batted fourth for the Italians and went 2-for-4, batted in a run and handled three fielding chances cleanly.

The game underscored the WBC’s nationality maze. The Canadian star was Joey Votto, the National League’s 2010 Most Valuable Player with the Cincinnati Reds. He was born in Toronto but could have played for Italy because he has Italian forebears. On the Italian side was shortstop Anthony Granato, who also was born in Toronto and so could have played for Canada.

The game featured the flag and player parades that always decorate international sport. Three national anthems were sung, with the U.S.’s joining those of the competing teams. About 8,000 people showed up in the 48,000-seat ballpark—most of them attired in Canadian red because lots of Canadians winter in the Phoenix area. Everyone got along, which was in contrast to the next day, when brawls on the field and in the stands punctuated the Canada-Mexico game. In a way that was a good thing because it showed that some people cared who won. Maybe if baseball is lucky it’ll one day have a Baseball War like the Soccer War of 1969 that matched Honduras and El Salvador.

Harvey and I hadn’t planned on it, but it was a stroke of good luck that we saw the Italian team. It’s been the surprise of the tournament, upsetting Canada and Mexico in Pool D to advance to the second round. Last Friday it cold-cocked the Canadians, gaining the 10-run lead (at 14-4) that caused the game to be stopped in the eighth inning.

The game showed that, however constituted, the Italian team has advanced to the point where it comes under the anybody-can-beat-anybody rule that governs most of baseball at every level. While its lineup contained a few recognizable big-league names, its game batting stars were Christopher Colabello, a Massachusetts native whose last professional stop was in Class AA, and Mario Chiarini, a homegrown from the Italian pro league. Italia probably won’t win the whole thing but it certainly deserves a “Viva!” for a nice try.

 As of this writing the U.S. team still was alive in the tourney, as was Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The baseball could be good—check it out.

 A better way to find out which nation is best at the game would be to have the winners of several of the national major leagues have it out after their regular seasons, but I could see a problem with that.   I mean, we already have a World Series, don’t we?

Friday, March 1, 2013


                What are the elements of a successful marriage? I can’t say generally, but I can offer the example of myself and Susie, my dear wife of 32 years.  She likes it warm and I like it cool. She’s a pack rat and I can’t wait to throw things away. I think all food is created equal and she’s happiest nibbling on carrots and lettuce.

               Our twains diverge further when it comes to sports. In baseball she’s been flighty as a gnat, at one time or another being a devoted fan of the Detroit Tigers, L.A. Dodgers, Chicago White Sox and, now, the Arizona Diamondbacks. I’m as constant as the moon, rooting for the same Chicago teams as I did at age seven, despite also having lived in a number of other cities.  

                We’ve been Arizonans for 15 years, and I like the place fine, so my attitude toward the Phoenix pro teams puzzles even me. The only local club I’ve had any enthusiasm for was the basketball Suns during Steve Nash’s heyday, but while I enjoyed watching them play it didn’t bother me much when they lost.

                More seasons than not I’ve been downright hostile to the D’backs, failing to cheer their successes and gloating over their failures. I confess that that attitude stems in part from envy over their winning a World Series title in only their fourth year of existence in 2001, something my team, the Chicago Cubs, hadn’t done for 93 years to that point, and 104 years now. But I think it’s also been a reaction against the inattentive people who make up a large part of the Arizona fan base, folks who rarely rouse themselves to cheer the team on the field unless prompted to do so by the electronic scoreboard at Chase Field.

                Lots of times Susie and I have settled into our favorite upper-deck (cheap) seats at Chase, with empty seats fore and aft, only to have locals plop down in the row in front of us and hinder our view. We’ve learned not to bother moving because more often than not they’ll leave after a couple of innings, never to return.  Where they go I have no idea. A better question is why they came in the first place.

                Over the last few years, however, the D’backs have done a few things I’ve liked, and have turned my antipathy into neutrality. Lacking a “C” on their jerseys they’ll never supplant the Cubs or White Sox in my affections, but I can foresee a time when I’ll be at least a little pleased when they do well.  As Susie can attest, that’s big.

                The person who’s turned me around is Kevin Towers, the D’backs’ general manager since September, 2010. He’s not only savvy baseballwise but is a standup guy as well, one of the few MLB execs who’d frankly discuss steroids use in the game during the 1990-2005 HITS Era (for Heads In The Sand), when juiced players were jacking juiced balls out of parks at a mockery-making rate and the official word on the subject was mum. The fallout from that span will always stain the sport, stamping a permanent asterisk on the records of the period.

                Towers made his bones generally managing the San Diego Padres, achieving four divisional titles and a World Series appearance (in 1998) in a city that’s as indifferent toward baseball as is Phoenix. In one of his first moves here he captured my attention, trading away Mark Reynolds, then the team’s posterboy.

                What made that deal wasn’t the guy Arizona got (David Hernandez, a useful relief pitcher) but the guy it got rid of. Reynolds best exemplified the D’backs of the new century’s first decade, a dumb slugger who hacked for the fences each time up but connected mostly with air. His 223 strikeouts in 2009 was a Major League record, breaking his own mark (204) of the year before. 

                More offputing yet was the attitude behind all those Ks; when asked about his propensity to whiff Reynolds always answered “that’s my style,” as if baseball were an individual game.  His negligent play at third base rounded out his zero persona.

                Although Towers got little credit for it hereabouts, he accomplished a small miracle in 2011, building a bullpen from scratch and turning a 65-97 team into one that went 94-68 and won a divisional crown.  A lot of luck went into that record, and it wasn’t repeated during last year’s 81-81 finish that more accurately reflected the team’s talent level.  Towers recognized this and completed the housecleaning that he’d begun two years earlier, sweeping out center-fielder Chris Young and right-fielder Justin Upton, two more players cut in the Reynolds mold.    

                The dumping of Upton was especially controversial; the team had made the young man the first choice in the 2005 draft and he’d intermittently flashed superstar gifts, sending drives into the darkest recesses of industrial-looking Chase. Mostly, though, he looked distracted, and Towers reasoned that it no longer was useful betting big money that he’d shape up.

                The players Towers has added—mainly second-baseman Aaron Hill; third-baseman Martin Prado, who came from Atlanta in the Upton trade; and right-fielder Cody Ross-- aren’t light-up-the-sky types. One writer for the Arizona Republic called them “white hot” competitors fanatical about winning, but that was silly because baseball is a game of adjustment and reaction and any player who burned white would quickly turn into a cinder. But they do look like adult pros who’ll show up to play every day, a welcome change in these parts.

                I don’t know how Arizona will do this season. They share a division with the San Francisco Giants, who’ve won two of the last three World Series, and the refinanced Dodgers and their $200 million payroll.  Baseball is mostly about pitching and the D’backs’ is iffy, especially the starters.  They should be out there trying, though, and I could get behind that.