On Sunday afternoon when Craig Kimbrel took the mound for Team USA in the 9th inning of a win-or-go-home game against Canada, Braves country held its collective breath, praying for an easy three-batter inning free of injury. Sure it was a five run game with very little pressure on the Braves all-star closer, but you just never know when the injury bug will bite.
Thankfully for everyone involved, Kimbrel ended his first World Baseball Classic appearance with a Team USA win and a pain-free arm. Keep your fingers crossed for his health the rest of the way.
But isn’t this an odd way to go about watching a quadrennial event that draws worldwide attention? Isn’t this an odd way to go about playing in such an event? Well actually, no.
As I sat down to write this on Monday afternoon, I was fuming as I ran through countless examples of how Joe Torre’s management of Team USA was in the best interest of Major League Baseball and not the greater American pride that rides on this tournament. I had them lined up like ducks in a row, ready to pick off each and every mistake he has made thus far. But as I watched the U.S. roll through its second round game against Puerto Rico I quickly realized one thing: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Jimmy Rollins doesn’t want to get down a sacrifice bunt. It doesn’t matter if Shane Victorino starts over Giancarlo Stanton because every player has to get playing time . It doesn’t matter if Torre elects to bring in little-known reliever David Hernandez instead of Jeremy Affeldt because he doesn’t want to use relievers on back-to-back days. It doesn’t matter because that’s how good Team USA is. They can overcome mistakes and self-enforced rules and they can out talent teams without any real strategy or passion along the way.
One thing that has stood out to me in this year’s classic is the unwavering energy that international fans and players bring to each game. Relentless chanting and drumming consumes most of the stands, while high-fives and enthusiastic hugs are commonplace on the field. As I watched the replay of Andrelton Simmons’ game-tying homerun against Cuba on Monday, I imagined repeatedly what a similar moment would have meant to American baseball fans, and it doesn’t even begin to compare. Chalk it up to the 162-game schedule that puts little emphasis on a single win, or to the boastful nature that has become taboo in American culture, or even to the overall disinterest that has swept Americans in all phases of life. No matter your conclusion, I assure you that it does not matter.
That’s who we are in the United States. When lackluster preparation and commitment put us in a corner, it’s our sheer talent and resources that allow us to prevail. So what if nearly every major league superstar decided against the WBC? So what if fans don’t show up until the third inning and leave in the 8th? So what if all Ryan Braun has in mind are the at-bats he needs to accumulate in order to be ready for April 1?
It doesn’t matter because we’re that good. Team USA got a scare in round one, no doubt. And the Dominican Republic will undoubtedly be the stiffest competition we have seen in this tournament. But with the Americans positioned one win away from the final round in San Francisco, Team USA stands firmly as the team to beat, despite what I would like to say about the way that fans and players alike have treated an event that had the potential to be truly classic.