Saturday, March 7, 2009

WBC opener or MLB playoffs?

You think nobody cares about the World Baseball Classic? How about 42,000 people standing and cheering with two outs and a runner on second in the 9th inning as Canada tried to tie the game against the U.S.

The game seemed like it should have happened in October. Two rivals. The U.S. trying to avenge a loss to Canada in the 2006 WBC first round. A great symbol of the tension: Adam Dunn with his head down, then putting his first two fingers to his neck to take his pulse in the 9th.

It was a well-played game, swinging back and forth throughout. Ultimately, the U.S. was able to hang on, winning 6-5 in Toronto, Canada.

The U.S. trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth, before scoring three runs on two homers to take lead. The winning run came in the sixth on a two-run shot by Dunn.

The WBC couldn't have started better for the U.S. team. And it hopefully attracted some new fans.

Note: The U.S. victory was the second great game of the day. The Netherlands defeated the heavily-favored Dominican Republic 3-2 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

WBC debate

My friend T.J. insists the World Baseball Classic is not worth the trouble. He says he'll be disgusted if Cubs players Ted Lilly and Geovanny Soto get hurt in the international tournament and that the team paying the bills deserves the ultimate loyalty.

Did anyone at Manchester United tell David Beckham it would be a bad idea if he played for England in soccer's World Cup? I suspect it would be a national disaster if he chose to sit out the tournament because his employer didn't like the idea.

When Canada won the Olympic hockey gold medal in 2002, was that not a symbol of national pride? Our northern neighbors define their sporting selves by excellence in hockey and won the Olympics for the first time in 50 years. Consider this from Wikipedia:

"In Canada, the CBC said that 10.6 million watched the game. Veteran CBC Sports commentator Bob Cole called in the dying seconds of the game: 'Now, after 50 years, it's time for Canada to stand up and cheer! STAND UP AND CHEER EVERYBODY! THE OLYMPICS SALT LAKE CITY 2002 MEN'S ICE HOCKEY GOLD MEDAL: CANADA!'"

The game was among the most-watched sports shows in CBC history. You think Canadians only care about NHL success? They care about international hockey, too.

It is OK to play for national pride, T.J. It should be encouraged.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hit the nail on the head

ESPN's Jayson Stark made the same point in this column that I did here yesterday.

Stark argues there is pressure on the U.S. baseball team to play well in the World Baseball Classic this time for the health of the competition. The WBC is widely accepted outside the U.S., but here in the birthplace of baseball it's an afterthought.

That has to change, not because of TV ratings and financial projections, but because baseball is the American game.

"Three years ago, we sat in ballparks where other WBC countries were playing baseball and were blown away by the energy crackling out of every seat in the park. It felt like the Final Four had just merged with the World Cup. The baseball was awesome. The atmosphere was even better," Stark wrote.

American fans have to get past the notion that winning a World Series is the greatest achievement in baseball. Maybe it is bigger than a WBC championship now. But in a few years, when the WBC grows, that title will be bigger. Is there anyone in the world that thinks winning the MLS Cup or European Champions League title is bigger than winning the World Cup?

This is not a glorified All-Star game designed to make money for MLB. It's an international tournament. A chance to prove who has the best baseball players. When was the last time the U.S. could accurately say that? The 2000 Olympics, the last time a U.S. team won the gold medal. We also could say it in 1988, when we sent amateur players.

The country got behind the Olympic basketball team last summer in its quest to win the gold medal and prove U.S. basketball really was the best in the world. In my mind this is the same idea. We have to prove we're the best once again, this time in baseball.

There has to be someone out there willing to get behind that banner.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

International enthusiasm for the national pastime

While home trying to get over my nasty cold, I was able to watch a replay of the first 2009 World Baseball Classic game between China and Japan.

The game was played in Tokyo, Japan, one of the most baseball-obsessed countries in the world. It was a sell-out and the fans were vocal, banging drums and blowing horns to cheer for their team.

Japan won 4-0 over an inexperienced Chinese team. I was impressed with the enthusiasm for world baseball. Here in America, it seems throughout the off-season, players have been going out of their way to avoid playing in the event, whether it be for team USA or any other country.

I know money is the ultimate deciding factor in those decisions. But I don't think it's such a bad idea that pro athletes play for their country. The Olympics remains the premier international competition, now with professionals playing team sports like basketball and hockey. It also seems to work for soccer's World Cup and golf's Ryder Cup.

I think a competition like this can grow to become a great event, even if there are maximum pitch-counts and other odd rules, like beginning in the 13th inning, each team bats with runners on first and second.

Americans still call baseball the national pastime, but the national sport really is football. The WBC is another reminder about why we love baseball. Just watching the game today, headache and all, I remembered why I enjoy watching games in the summer. The pace ... the anticipation of the pitch ... the fact that I could check three other channels between plays.

Baseball is never going to become a world game like soccer, but I enjoyed seeing other countries excited about it. That is one thing you don't see with football.

By the way, Japan played very well, fitting of a defending world champion. Even China, a country that has had professional baseball for seven years (that's 126 less than America), and one win in international competition, showed signs that it could develop into a competitive team.

Team USA opens WBC play on Saturday against Canada in Toronto. Let's hope the Asian enthusiasm for the event rubs off in North America.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

So close ... again

I thought the Hoosiers played their best game of the season Saturday in a loss to Penn State. It turned out they played their best game Tuesday against Michigan State. Unfortunately they still lost.

I was just itching to write here that Indiana beat No. 8 Michigan State. No one would have believed me. I would have said read this twice and let it sink in.

When the Hoosiers closed to within two with 3:31 to go, I turned the computer on. It seemed IU was getting a few breaks. They caught Michigan State on an off night a day after a win at Illinois. The Spartans seemed sluggish and could never deliver the knock-out punch. And after MSU Coach Tom Izzo got a technical foul with less than 8 minutes to go, the Hoosiers went on a tear.

I logged into when the Spartans missed a layup and another jump shot with less than 2 minutes to go.

But the Hoosiers once again could not close. After the gap narrowed to two points on a Verdell Jones free throw, IU did not score another field goal and only managed two points the remainder of the game. An MSU rebound and dunk with 29 seconds left finally put the game out of reach.

This game was no let-down after the big step forward Saturday. This time it was the final 5 minutes without a field goal that ended it. If they had one more good possession, this team may have gained the biggest win of the year.

But once again, I write about a valiant effort that resulted in a loss.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

That clicking noise

Did you hear that?

Something may have clicked Saturday night during IU's loss at Penn State. These young Hoosiers may finally be starting to get it.

The team played probably its best game of the season on the road. They never trailed by more than five points and led the game with about two minutes to go. Unfortunately, an inability to make some clutch shots down the stretch and untimely turnovers caused what has been a familiar result this season. This time the season's major problems surfaced late in the game.

Verdell Jones played much better than I had seen in recent weeks and I think Tom Pritchard would have had a better game if he hadn't been saddled with three fouls in the first half. The team only committed 11 turnovers, much better than its season average.

I've read and watched several commentators talk about coaches waiting for that light to turn on with a young team and the players begin to play with confidence. I saw it Saturday. Late in the game, the Hoosiers didn't wilt, they remained aggressive. Unfortunately the shots just didn't fall.

I wrote Friday there was a scenario where the Hoosiers could win a few games in the Big Ten tournament. Last night's game proves this team could be dangerous. If they meet a team with nothing to play for, who knows what could happen.

This game is something the Hoosiers can build upon. I just hope Tuesday's game versus Michigan State and Sunday's regular season finale at Wisconsin don't destroy the foundation. The Hoosiers are playing with more confidence, but certainly that confidence is shaky.