Last year I worked 60-70 hrs. a week and made OK money, but my life was in suspended animation. I put on 25 lbs. and my body turned into a shapeless mass of greasy suet. I didn't get to watch even one sporting event, and I completely miss out on the Olympic Games.
This year, thanks to the miracle of modern economics, I am out of work. I am going to the gym 5-6 times a week. My body still looks like a freakin no-fly zone, but I am putting myself back together one emaciated muscle group at a time.
Best of all, as if to make up for all the sports I missed, I have got the World Baseball Classic to welcome me back to the real world. Thank you MLB for putting meaning back in my life. I am enjoying watching this international baseball, with its great global talent and national rivalries, so much that I don't know whether to spit or wind my wristwatch.
It has been a personal blow to me as each team has been eliminated from the competition. They are all so deserving and inspiring to watch! When the Dominican Republic team was sent home, I personally mourned for them as a friend of that country, which I have enjoyed visiting many times, not to mention all the great Dominican friends I have had here in New York over the years. The Dominican people have been like family to me through my work experiences and from a period whan I first arrived in the City, when I had the privilege to live in their exciting barrio of Washington Heights. When I speak Spanish, I speak it with a distinctly Dominican inflection that I learned from them.
But I also feel close to the great Mexican people, in whose country I have also spent many wonderful vacations, and whose historic culture going back many millennia I have had the honor to learn and appreciate to such an extent that I feel partly Mexican myself.
Naturally, as an American, I want to salute the Puerto Rican team, representing as it does a race of people who are as important to the historical development of baseball as any in the world, and who have contributed a pantheon of great athletes, past and present, who have endowed the sport with much dedication and breathless excitement.
Naturally, at the pinnacle of all this Latin glory is the godhead of Caribbean baseball, the Cubans, whose monumental contribution to the sport has been partly eclipsed by petty political considerations that have nothing to do with the sport. If you accept my reasoning that baseball is life itself, then all the meaningless partisan bickering that has stood in the way of the sport's transcendent status as the ultimate expression of world athletic culture has only served to demean the human race and denude it of dignity and majesty.
Never mind that. I have come to praise baseball, not to bury it.
At the Cuba-Mexico showdown the Cuban team was positively balletic in its performance. The hitting, notably the tandem Gourriel, Cepeda, Cespedes was so mechanical that anything that was presented in the strike zone got hit. Cuban baserunning and stealing was poetry-in-motion. The Cuban starter, Jorge Vera, dominated Mexico's hitters for the first five innings by means of a smooth slider, change-up and 90s mph fastball, presiding over a 5-2 advantage into the fifth inning, when he was replaced by Cuba's all-time greatest pitcher, Pedro Lazo, a portly, powerful hurler who so thoroughly dominated the action for the rest of the game that it was rather like watching a bullfighter controlling a reging, impulsive bull. Lazo, totally unflappable, just brushed off the Mexican hitters like flies. In the seventh inning the Cuban batters went through their entire order, Cespedes getting two hits in the inning, the second a stand-up triple bringing the Cuban advantage to 7-2, leaving the Mexicans to try to play catch up for the remainder of the game.
The only threat to Lazo came from an eighth inning home run from Jorge Cantu, fillowed by a hard single by Garcia, but Lazo shut that down. Mexico scored another run by HR in the nineth, but it was too little too late to make a dent in Cuba's big lead. Nevertheless, It was enough to keep me glued to my barstool until the final out.
The action on the field was matched by fan enthusiasm in the stands with some of the Mexican fans showing up in traditional outfits, including a full-dress Aztec warrior. The beautiful thing about Latin culture being that there is no age restriction for having a good time, it being disrespectful for younger persons to admonish their elders to "act their age". North America, with its hubristic, though largely ignorant younger generation, could take a tip from these wiser, more traditional cultures.
Additionally, there was the thrill of an interview with historic Mexican pitching ace Fernando Valenzuela, who is now that country's pitching coach. Just seeing a guy like him still in the game, enhances the continuity of baseball through the generations. Dave Winfield and Tony Gwinn also made cameo appearances.
Unfortunately, the stooge sitting next to me in the bar, who was no sportsman, freakin ruined my good time. the guy leans over and sez to me, "Wouldn't it be great if the whole Cuban team defected?" I'm sure a lot of pinheads get off on the concept of the Cubans being robbed of that country's greatest achievement. I guarantee you, the team's hotel was beseiged by two-bit hustlers hanging around like fly-catching lizards, waiting for a Cuban baseball plsyer to emerge like a young girl getting off a Greyhound bus at Port Authority Bus Terminal. "I can get you a big-league contract, millions of bucks etc."
Why should these guys defect? For the money? These are ball players, not MBAs. So they can be like Jose Contreras, who signed a contract with the Yankees only to have George Steinbrenner berate him and call him a lot of dirty names, so unnerving him that he had to get out of New York completely?
OK, these Cuban ball players don't have millions of bucks. They make $500 a month. They get a house, a car and a cell phone. But they are national heroes. The people worship the ground they walk on. Cuba has a law on the books making baseball the official national sport. And after they get through playing baseball they got a job for life. Baseball, beaches, rum and an 1957 Ford Fairlane - who could ask for more? Why defect to a crashing economy, confusion and geeks like A-Rod, who can't decide if he's coming or going anymore, whose latest gaffe is having himself pictured in a fruit magazine kissing himself in a mirror, who dates a deranged, mangy **** like Madonna, a person so rancid that her ex-husband, Guy Ritchie, can't even bring himself to refer to her as a person, but rather as "it".
Cuba's national team has played in fifty world tournaments. Out of the fifty, it has placed first in 42 and second in 8. That's why they were a sure bet to progress to the next round. There was just one minor detail standing in their way - Japan.
The Japan game took place the following evening. An ominous fog hung over Petco Stadium, reminiscent of the opening scene of a Godzilla movie. The Japanese had a good luck charm in attendence, in the form of Sadaharu Oh, the historical home run king of world baseball, with 838 lifetime HRs to his record. He's old now, and not well, but what would be the psychological effect on the U.S. team if it had Babe Ruth sitting in the stands wearing a team jacket? The Cuban team, for all its formidable ability was, in the words of ESPN color commentator, Orel Hershieser, "a little afraid of Japan".
And with good reason. the Japanese, unlike the Americans, who were apprehansive about committing their first-tier talent in advance of the regular season for fear of injury (which turned out to be justified, considering the number of Americans who had to withdraw from the tournament because of various ailments), had fielded the cream of that country's formidable talent, a veritable Asian baseball tsunami. the team boasts, in addition to 5 MLB all-stars, an inestimable wealth of domestic stars, all of whom would be suitable to play for the American Major Leagues. Hersheiser, whose invaluable narration, informed as it is by many years of championship play, added immensly to my appreciation of the series, had this to say about Japanese baseball:
"When I had the opportunity to tour Japan in 1988 with the Dodgers after we had won the World Series, we didn't really respect their ability. We thought they were all right but not at professional level. Now I'm amazed at the progress they've made, and the level of their ability".
All throughout the series, when referring to Asian baseball, Hersheiser keeps referring to the commitment that those countries have made in terms of work ethic, studying of American baseball techniques and adherence to the fundementals.
Throughout the game, although the Cubans fought valiantly to keep up with the Japanese machine, cracks started showing up in their defense. In the fourth inning the Cuban pitcher, Yunieski Maya, yielded a single and a double, putting Japanese at second and third. The following hitter, Aoki, hit a long fly ball to center, which center fielder Yoennes Cespedes had to catch back-handed while running towards the center field wall. Unfortunately, the ball bounced off the heel of his glove and got away from him for an error, allowing the two Japanese runners to score. This was the crack in the dam of the Cuban defense which turned into an inondation in the following innings. Cespedes redeemed himself later in the game with a magnificent stand-up triple in the sixth inning, but by then the damage to Cuban team's composure was irreparable.
After Cespedes' error in the fourth, Cuban manager Eugenio Velez, replaced pitcher Maya with Yulieski Gonzalez, but Gonzalez began bickering with the catcher, Pastano, which only added to the team's disarray. The dispute became so intense that the two players had to be held apart in the dugout, and Gonzalez had to be taken out of the game in his turn.
Ultimately, Cuba collapsed completely 5-0 and were sent home without winning or placing for the first time in almost 50 years. Nevertheless, the outstanding hitting performance of the team's offensive line-up of Yourriel, Cespedes and Cepeda ought to go a long way toward keeping the country's sense of honor intact.
This set the stage for a seeding match between Japan and Korea, which is the most intense rivalry of the series. Historically, these two countries, separated by the Sea of Japan, have for centuries been geopolitical rivals as only neighbors can be. This rivalry has naturally extended to sport, with the Japanese having taken the 2006 WBC and Korea winning the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. After Korea beat Japan 1-0 in an earlier seeding match, Japan right fielder Oshiro Suzuki vowed to "crush them". This is not the sporting attitude that MLB wishes to promote, and when Korea beat Japan for a second time during the series, Suzuki was advised to dummy up regarding the press.
Nevertheless, nobody told the Koreans to clam up, and after their second win against Japan they decided to have a little impromptu ceremony on the field, where they planted a tiny Korean flag on the pitcher's mound while the Japanese seethed in their dugout.
This motivated the Japanese to go out and kick some Korean butt, which they did in Thursday night's seeding match, by a score of 6-2. Myself not having a dog in this fight, being a Team USA fan, I was nonetheless mesmerized by the tooth and nail battle of desperation being waged by these two national teams, even as the larger, stronger Koreans were worn down by Japanese precision pitching, power hitting and speedy baserunning.
But this is not to say that the Japanese enjoy a definitive advantage as the series progresses. Given the historical predisposition of these two countries for riotous behavior, if they advance to the championship stage stadium spectators would be advised to bring their helmets.
May the best maniacs win!