Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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A United States win tonight could change the WBC forever

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For years we have debated the significance of the World Baseball Classic. Whether it’s exciting or important. Whether it’s “real baseball” and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how we should think about the regular major league season.

We’ve also spilled a lot of ink about the significance of national teams in and of themselves. Given that Major League Baseball, played by people from all over the world, is undoubtedly the game played at its pinnacle, we’ve talked a lot about whether a tournament in which teams playing for only their nation is meaningful. Especially when so many of the players are not, actually, from their team’s nation. Against that backdrop is the sometimes uncomfortable fact that the U.S. team has (a) not attracted the best U.S. players; and (b) the U.S. team has never won the WBC.

The arguments these facts stir up never tend to be resolved. We just rehash them every four years as many people — not least of which Major League Baseball — try to get people to quit fixating on the meaning and just get excited about the event. And the event is exciting, no matter what you think of it and its implications. To date, however, the powers that be have been largely unsuccessful in getting the U.S. audience on board.

But that may all change tonight.

Tonight, for the first time, the United States will play for the WBC title. Their opponent: a Puerto Rico team which, likewise, is playing for its first WBC title. The game will begin at 9PM Eastern time, live from Dodger Stadium. It will be aired on MLB Network.

Puerto Rico is 7-0 in this tournament an defeated the United States 6-5 in a second-round game just this past Friday in San Diego. Seth Lugo will get the start for Puerto Rico. He has won both of his starts in the tournament, allowing just three runs in 11 WBC innings. For the United States, it’s Marcus Stroman. He lost that game to Puerto Rico, though it was a game characterized by an early barrage followed by Stroman settling down and retiring 14 batters in a row at one point. As far as the overall matchup, Puerto Rico’s offense has generally carried them — they’ve scored at least three runs in all seven of their games — while the U.S. has ground out some close victories and capitalized on opponents’ errors.

But the Xs and Os of all of this is sort of beside the point. And not just because Xs and Os in a one-game, winner-take-all championship format are always beside the point in a sport as random and unpredictable as baseball.

The bigger story here is that, for the first time, the U.S. stands poised to win this tournament. That, in turn, could make the WBC relevant to Americans in ways it never has been before. Maybe that’s a sad comment — “hey, we’re America and we only care about something if we’re good at it!” — but there’s an undeniable kernel of truth to it. There’s a more important a corollary to that kernel, though. Maybe we don’t get excited about a national contest unless we’re good at it, but once we’re proven to be good at it we get REALLY invested in STAYING good at it.

In this I think of U.S. basketball. For decades the Untied States dominated international play, losing only when we were literally robbed. Over time, that dominance was assumed and Americans grew pretty complacent about it, often not sending our best players. In the 1988 Olympics, however, the U.S. team got beat fair-and-square, and beat pretty badly, winning only a bronze. This motivated people to push for pros to be able to play in the Olympics and, in turn, spurred the creation of the “Dream Team” which dominated in the 1992 Olympics. There was a crazy fervor surrounding that team, and only part of it was about the spectacle created by all that talent on one squad. There was a sense that, dammit, this was our game, we established it in the past and we’re defending our claim to it now. The America’s Cup yacht race in 1980s can be seen in much the same way. No one cared until our dominance was questioned — those pesky Australians took OUR cup! — and for a time people got enthused about reasserting it.

The game tonight will draw a lot of interest simply because the U.S. is playing for the title. If we win it the WBC will — for better or worse — become a point of pride to a lot of Americans. For the first time we will have a claim to greatness on the international stage in baseball that will dovetail with our preexisting attitudes regarding Major League Baseball and U.S. dominance of the sport at large.

More importantly, we’ll have set a national bogey for international baseball against which all of our future efforts will be judged, fairly or otherwise. When the WBC comes back around again, that national pride we have in defending a title will, among many, supplant the indifference that has met the WBC until now. The idea that the U.S. could lose its place of prominence in something will bug people enough to play closer attention and become more invested.

Like I said, that’s all the product of a complicated mix of national pride and ego and complacency particular to the American sports fan, not all of it rational. But sports aren’t rational in a hundred ways. We’ve seen this dynamic in the past and its undeniable that it’s a potent one. A U.S. win tonight will be a good thing for U.S. baseball fans in isolation. But it may be a better thing for the World Baseball Classic in general. It could stimulate greater interest down the road. It could change the tournament forever.

O’s GM Dan Duquette: O’s fans really, really hate Jose Bautista

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Over the winter Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said that he would not pursue free agent outfielder Jose Bautista because Orioles fans didn’t like him.

Whether that’s the real reason, as opposed to matters of cost, the team’s needs and Bautista’s value as a player going forward, is only something O’s decision makers know, but it was a fun bit of needling. Bautista is an unpopular guy in most places that are not Toronto, and hearing a GM get into the kinds of discussions fans often get into was unusual.

Duquette was interviewed by Mark Feinsand of MLB.com yesterday and he expanded on those comments:

(Laughs) Well that was an easy one; our fans just don’t like Jose. We play those guys 25 times a year and he’s the face of the Blue Jays. He’s the villain in the play whenever we play the Blue Jays. I like our guys. Our guys are good. [Mark] Trumbo is like a working-class-type baseball player. If he was going to work every day on a construction site, you would understand that he brings that kind of work ethic every day. That’s the kind of player that our fans identify with. We try to get gritty players that work hard every day and give their best effort every day. Our fans seem to like that and respond to it.

Again, I get the Bautista hate, and anything to stir up a rivalry is good showmanship, but those comments about Trumbo are inane. And not just because Trumbo comes from one of the most affluent suburbs in America where there were not, in all likelihood, a plethora of lunchpails in people’s houses.

For one thing, that kind of “gritty, blue collar” thing comes with a lot of historic racial baggage in which white players, regardless of their background or work ethic, got those complimentary labels while black and Latino players, regardless of their backgrounds and work ethics, were described as lazy or entitled or showboaty or whatever. While I do not think Duquette is intending to make some racial comment here — I think he was leaning on some shopworn cliches — that “combustible Latino” vs. “hard working, lunch pail guy” trope has a long and ugly history and it’s unfortunate to hear it referenced, even out of laziness.

For another thing: on what planet is Jose Bautista not a hard-working player? I get that you may not like the guy, but his story is a pretty amazing one. He was a journeyman who, for years, was an average-at-best performer. A lot of guys who profile like he did early in his career wash out of the league before they’re 30. He persevered, worked hard and, somehow, found an extra gear most people didn’t expect he had and he has spent the past seven seasons as one of the best sluggers in the game. Maybe he’s not a fan favorite, but his work ethic has never been questioned.

I dunno. Stir the pot if you want to — it can make things a lot of fun — but this is some dumb pot-stirring.

 

Jerry Krause: 1939-2017

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Jerry Krause, most famous for building the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls, but a baseball man as well, passed away today. He was 77.

Krause was scouting for the Chicago White Sox when Jerry Reinsdorf hired him to run the Bulls in 1985, Michael Jordan’s rookie year. Chicago would go on to win six titles on his watch due in large part to his assembling of  a strong supporting cast around MJ.

After leaving his job with the Bulls he returned to baseball, scouting briefly for the New York Yankees and then moving on to spend five years with the New York Mets. After a second stop with the White Sox he was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks as a special assistant in 2011. He also spent time with the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners during his baseball career.