Korean fans in San Diego prior to a 2006 World Baseball Classic semi-final game. The WBC can bring out passions rarely seen in the American game short of playoff time.
In better economic times, in early 2006, I took my spring break down in Anaheim and San Diego to watch games from the first World Baseball Classic. While baseball is big in the United States, it doesn't generally bring out the same passions that, say college football does.
Indeed, as I saw the underwhelming U.S. squad beaten by the Mexicans in Anaheim, I noticed that emotions were held tight (indeed, the Mexican fans cheered a lot louder than the Americans). But flash-forward a few days to San Diego, where I saw Japan and South Korea -- longtime rivals on and off the field -- battle. Fans were segregated, drums were hammered and chants were VERY loud. The atmosphere was electric!
This year's tournament hasn't yet gotten much coverage in the States, but it's starting to raise a ruckus. The Americans play Venezuela tonight at Toronto's Skydome in a game pretty much meaningless except for seeding purposes, but if the U.S. wins, it will likely faces the darlings of this year's tournament: the Netherlands.
The Dutch twice stunned the Dominican Republic -- and the baseball world -- this week by overcoming the heavily favored Dominicans, 3-2 and 2-1 yesterday in 11 innings. The Netherlands' players stormed the field after scoring the winning run like they had just won the World Series -- and in effect, if you take the name seriously, maybe they had.
Sports Illustrated called the Dutch win the "international baseball version of Buster Douglas, the 1980 U.S. hockey team and the Milan Indians [of Hoosiers fame] all rolled into one." The Amsterdam Telegraph had a restrained story, but the commentators below the story were gushing in their praise (at least in the Google Dutch-to-English translation). I'm betting it'll even eventually make its way to Fidel Castro's blog.
Baseball is in an uphill battle to make its way back into the Olympics, and I've no doubt that a succesfull Dutch showing in the WBC will help get the sport back on the program. Showing that the "little guys" have the ability to succeed and counter the U.S./Cuba/Japan dominance will do almost as good for the sport as the United States losing the 2008 Olympic gold medal will have done for softball.
So I say, go Netherlands!