Acts: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
Scene: Petco Park in San Diego, March 20
Enter Cuba and Japan.
Why, what a king is this!
Only eight days earlier, Japan had said collectively: "He hath wronged me." But on this night, that disputed appeal play at third in a game against Team USA is as distant as Mount Fuji's peak. So are those two sorrowing losses to their neighbors across the Strait of Korea. For as Falstaff said in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "I will answer it straight; I have done all this. That is now answered."
A tournament that began with 16 nations and only a vague idea of what to expect is down to two finalists. A tournament that began with 179 Major League representatives now has two -- Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) and Akinori Otsuka (Texas Rangers) of Japan. A tournament that enchanted a global audience now closes on the final night of winter.
The final game is dictated by the first inning, as Japan loads the bases and then scores the first two runs, all without hitting a ball out of the infield. It is 4-0 before the inning is through, soon to be 6-1, and Cuba is forced to play catch-up the rest of the evening. True to its character, the team in red does just that, fighting back to a 6-5 deficit before Fukudome and Japan unleashes four more runs in the top of the ninth. Final score: Japan 10, Cuba 6. It is the first game with double-digit runs since USA's 17-0 rout of South Africa on March 10.
What is beauty? It is seeing the Cuban players come out to shake hands with the Japanese players in the kind of postgame high-five line that you see on a youth baseball field. An event that brought different styles of baseball and national pride also brought the lesson of camaraderie, sportsmanship and playing for fun. It is two Cuban players having their picture taken with Ichiro, who says, "I am unbelievably happy."
His words carry the weight of 737,112 fans who collectively attended 39 games in the tournament, of the millions who watched the World Baseball Classic on ESPN's networks and live over the Internet with MLB.TV.
Scene: Petco Park in San Diego, March 18
Enter Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan and Korea.
He leaves his friends to dignify them more, Proteus said, and so do players from these four final nations who travel to San Diego for the semifinal rounds. It is especially true of the team from Cuba, leaving its insulated island world to reveal its cloaked prowess to an impressionable world of baseball fans.
In the first of two games on this Saturday, the defining moment has nothing to do with a scoring play. After 4 1/3 scoreless innings, Cuban starter Yadel Marti is replaced by Pedro Luis Laza. Marti and Laza hug one another on the mound before the former parts for the dugout -- so fascinating and unique a baseball scene. As love between them like the palm might flourish ...
A scoreless tie is broken up in the sixth, when Miguel Tejada scores from third on a bobble and errant throw by Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel. But all of that renowned power in the Dominican lineup is repressed on this day. Lazo never permits another run, and Cuba scores three in the top of the seventh. The rally is started by that same second baseman who had stumbled in the field.
Korea enters its night game against Japan with a 6-0 record in the tournament, including a 2-0 record against its Far East neighbor. That and a resin bag will only dry your hands on this rainy night. It is win or go home, and Japan is not letting anyone plant another nation's flag on the mound tonight. Kosuke Fukudome comes off the bench for a two-run homer off Byung-Hyun Kim in the seventh inning, leading to a 6-0 Japan victory.
Pass no further, myriad Dominican bats
Nor your team with the "K" upon sky-blue hats.
How shall this bisson multitude digest
A final without two thought by many as best?
Exit Dominican Republic and Korea.
Scene: Pool 1, Angel Stadium in Anaheim
Cassius said to Brutus: "Why man, he doeth bestride the world like a colossus..." With such ample regard has the American brand of baseball evolved from time immemorial, and nothing about the World Baseball Classic will change the perception that Major League Baseball is the Olympus of professional baseball. But this second act does change perceptions about the distribution of phenomenal baseball talent and execution elsewhere around the world, showcased for the first time in this way.
This act opens with Japan vs. USA. Climax: Japan runner at third base is ruled out upon appeal for tagging before the catch in left, stirring a nation in the Far East and leaving the score tied at 3-3. Denouement: Alex Rodriguez hits a walk-off single up the middle, giving USA an opening 4-3 victory. The audience buzzes on the way out.
A new colossus bestrides the World Baseball Classic, and its name is Korea. Where have you hid among mortals all this time? Lee embodies this surprise emergence onto the stage, homering for the fifth time, this one a solo blast to start the scoring in Korea's 7-3 shocker over the U.S. He and his teammates then vanquish their neighbors from across the 40-mile-wide Strait of Korea, Japan, and finish this act with a colossally impressive 6-0 record on the way to San Diego.
Then the strangest of fate: Japan watches with the rest of the world as the team that caused it so much consternation is eliminated by Mexico. Even Clemens, in what may or may not be his own final act as a competitive baseball player, cannot bring the final round to the nation that brought baseball to the world. Three teams finish with 1-2 records, requiring a tiebreaker based on scoring. Ichiro Suzuki and the team from Japan has lost twice this round in heartbreaking style, yet advances to the semifinal.
Exit Mexico and the United States.
Scene: Pool 2, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico
This is a passion play, a particular kind of passion that you will not find anywhere else on Earth. It is somehow different, no more or no less than the kind you will find among a Midwestern radius of Cardinal fans or in Red Sox Nation or in the restless heart of a Cubs fan. It comes with dancing on the dugout, Cuban players lining the top step of their dugout and clapping for their batter in unison, emotional unrest, JumboTron videos of the great Roberto Clemente forever throwing the runner out at third, Delgado marching out of the dugout and toward intended salvation ... pure and unadulterated passion. It is as part of the game as pitching and hitting.
It is the heartbreak in the eyes of Venezuelan players, the realization that the mighty bats are just not quite ready yet -- unless the word "slump" is even possible to utter in March. First a 7-2 loss to Cuba despite Johan Santana's strong outing. Then the real Venezuela, a 6-0 breakout against Puerto Rico. At this moment, everyone in the pool is 1-1, and some will be dancing soon while others will cry. What no one can expect is that Venezuela's fate will come down to a simple passed ball, not the thunderous bats of a gaudy Dominican lineup. Yet that is all that separates two proud nations in a 2-1 Dominican Republic victory, resulting in the first semifinal entry.
"Love sought is good, but given unsought is better." It comes from "Twelfth Night", and this one is 12 nights after the World Baseball Classic's opening. It is the night you may have fallen in love with Caribbean baseball for the first time, even though you have cheered Latin players in the Majors for years. There are no politics on this night and Cuba is a friend indeed. You wonder how one of these two teams, Cuba or host Puerto Rico, possibly could be left behind in the World Baseball Classic, but a thrilling finish leaves only one to join the Dominicans and it is Cuba, 4-3.
Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams, Javy Lopez, Javier Vazquez, Delgado ... all going to their Major League homes now, first to Spring Training and then to a big-league ballpark near you. Same with Venezuelans Bobby Abreu, Santana, Freddy Garcia, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Zambrano, Ramon Hernandez ... all going back to work now. No matter your allegiance, it's a bittersweet and unimaginable symphony.
Exit Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Scene: Pool A, Tokyo Dome in Japan
Enter China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea.
Go, En-Yu Lin, right-hander for Chinese Taipei. Throw the first pitch in World Baseball Classic history. Stand forth, Byung Kyu Lee, and lead off the tournament by reaching first on an error by the second baseman.
Happy be Jae Seo, the former Met and new Dodger, who starts and records the decision in Korea's 2-0 opening victory over Chinese Taipei. Happy be new Padre Chan Ho Park, who records the first save of the event with three scoreless innings.
Learn well, China, for the game is still new to you. Koji Uehara, Japan's first starting pitcher, throws 65 pitches and 53 of them for strikes in that opener, and China loses, 18-2, under the mercy rule. China has two hits in its subsequent 10-1 loss to Korea, but take heart, for one is hit over the great wall by left fielder Shuo Yang.
Oh, Lee! Two home runs, 4-for-5 and five RBIs in that victory over China. And then another one, even louder: a two-run homer off Hirotoshi Ishii in the eighth inning to give Korea a 3-2 victory over Japan in the first-round finale. That dramatic moment happens in front of the largest crowd of the series -- 40,553 fans, including His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Naruhito and the Crown Princess Masako.
Ichiro is a modest 3-for-13 in the first round, and it is considered something of a shock that the favored host country is not the best so far from the Far East. But take time to pause, Japan, for it matters not. Two teams advance from each pool, and in this case it is 3-0, Korea and 2-1, Japan. Only the order is a surprise.
Exit China and Chinese Taipei.
Scene: Pool B, Chase Field in Phoenix and Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium
Enter Canada, Mexico, South Africa and USA.
"If I don't get another hit the whole tournament, just going around the bases with that 'USA' across my chest is a career highlight." Your words we catch, fair Chipper Jones. Even after 92 postseason games, this speaks volumes about the World Baseball Classic. The Atlanta Braves veteran hits one of two homers in the 2-0 opening victory over Mexico, and the other comes from Derrek Lee, who says, "When you hit a home run during the season, you feel like you did your job. When you hit a home run in something like this, it's kind of different."
South Africa: Thou shalt get Kings, though thou be none. So it was written in "Macbeth," and so it seemed when the World Baseball Classic began. But how close was the team in green and gold to something spectacular? In its opener against Canada, South Africa rallies from deficits of 3-0 and 7-4 -- taking an 8-7 lead into the ninth inning before succumbing. Ultimately it will be three and out for South Africa -- including a woefully outmatched appearance Friday against Roger Clemens and Team USA -- but there is no question how far baseball in that country has come since the 2000 Olympics.
"Goe a-part Adam, and thou shalt hear how he will shake me up." As Orlando said it in "As you Like it," so did Stern shake up the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday. The No. 9 hitter for Canada triples in a run, singles in two, and drives in another with an inside-the-park homer against Team USA. He also makes two sensational catches in the outfield and raises the expectations of Red Sox fans everywhere in leading Canada to that 8-0 lead and eventual 8-6 stunning victory.
The question in Pool B suddenly is whether the nation that brought baseball to the world would be abruptly removed from the World Baseball Classic. The jitters are short-lived. Mexico, with Tampa Bay Devil Rays slugger Jorge Cantu (5-for-13, two homers, six RBIs) picking up where he left off last fall, routs Canada to ensure it will advance to the second round. It means Team USA will need only to beat South Africa, and there is never a doubt after the first pitch. The Rocket, certainly looking like someone who should continue his Major League career, goes nearly five full scoreless innings throughout a mercy-shortened 17-0 victory. Junior Griffey goes 4-for-4 with two homers and seven RBIs, and finishes the first round 6-for-8 with an impressive 14 total bases.
Although three teams finished 2-1, USA and Mexico advance by virtue of tiebreaker rules. The team that had provided the shocker of the event suddenly is gone.
Exit Canada and South Africa.
Scene: Pool C, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Enter Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and The Netherlands.
"I hold the world but as the world Gratiano, A stage, where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one." Shakespeare's Anthonio said that in "The Merchant of Venice," and now behold Shairon Martis. His is but a sad part on Friday, pitching a consolation game for the Netherlands against Panama. Yet he plays his part so well, it is the performance of the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
Sixty-five pitches, the maximum he is allowed, and the 65th results in a double play that secures his 10-0 no-hitter over seven innings (mercy rule). The world is his stage. Never before, and probably never hence, can a moment on the mound match it for the 18-year-old right-hander from the island of Curacao, a Dutch territory. "I feel very proud," Martis says. "Words cannot express what I feel." Yet they do.
Pride has been the order of the day throughout the World Baseball Classic, and no moreso than among all those people who fill Hiram Bithorn Stadium to see such local favorites as Beltran and Williams playing for the pride of Puerto Rico. This group also gives everyone a chance to see Cuba -- a traditional international baseball power that required diplomatic maneuvering just to participate -- finally putting its somewhat secretive roster to the test against Major Leaguers.
Those two teams finished the first round of the tournament, and in an interesting way that only adds suspense to Actus Secundus. Puerto Rico wins it in seven innings, 12-2, riding a very obvious home-field advantage as if it really needed more strength. Beltran's monster homer in the fifth brings down the house and brings a curtain call, but the final inning brings a warning and then ejections as both clubs trade purpose pitches. After one from Cuba's Jonder Martinez sailed right over Ricky Ledee's head, Jose Santiago of Puerto Rico counters by nailing Juan Carlos Moreno in the thigh. Santiago and his manager, Jose Oquendo, are ejected. Puerto Rico gives up a run and then completes the 3-0 Pool C sweep, ending Cuba's international winning streak at 19 games, but it only makes things more interesting as these two clubs prepare for their next meeting in the second round.
In the end, the two teams expected to advance do just that. But no one will forget how Panama scored those two runs in the bottom of the ninth against Cuba, ultimately losing when Cuba scored twice in the top of the 11th. And no one will forget how Martis made all the world his stage, maybe the greatest consolation-game effort in sports memory.
Exit Panama and The Netherlands.
Scene: Pool D, Orlando, Fla.
Enter Australia, Dominican Republic, Italy and Venezuela.
Santana, the Minnesota Twins star and representative for Venezuela: "In our countries, fans go beyond the game. It's not just about being a fan. It's about passion. It's about loving the game."
That is the shared sentiment surrounding the first game in this group, between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. It is a titanic Latin matchup that was only teased in the previous month's Caribbean Series, and this moment finally arrives with pageantry of waving flags, pregame picnics, music and salsa dancing at the Disney Wide World of Sports. The Venezuelan contingent showed up with 300 more people than had tickets (and were all accommodated).
More than anything, though, this was a moment that fans all around baseball were wanting to see because of the curiosity factor. Just imagine that Dominican lineup! Sure, we would have loved to have seen Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez in there, maybe even Aramis Ramirez and perhaps Sammy Sosa. But here is what Dominican manager Manny Acta writes onto this day's lineup card:
1. Soriano 2B
2. Tejada SS
3. Pujols 1B
4. Ortiz DH
5. Alou LF
6. Beltre 3B
7. Encarnacion RF
8. Castillo C
9. Taveras CF
That would win you some pennants. On this day, it beats Santana and Venezuela by a mile. Montano said in "Othello:" "Me thinks, the wind hath spoke aloud at Land, A fuller blast ne're shooke our Battlements." David Ortiz hits two full blasts, including the leadoff shot that starts the D.R. scoring in this tournament, and Adrian Beltre hits a pair as well while finishing with five RBIs in the 11-5 rout.
As a pleasant harbinger for Seattle Mariner fans, Beltre turns this first-round bracket into his showcase. He finishes with three homers to share the tournament lead, helping the Dominicans to an easy three-win run through Orlando. Venezuela, led by Florida Marlins star Cabrera (4-for-10, two homers, five RBIs), also advances as expected, with a 2-1 record.
For Australia, which medaled at the last Olympics to feature baseball, this tournament is probably second only to China in its on-field education. The Aussies are blown out by Italy in their opener, 10-0, in a game requiring the mercy rule, and they manage only one hit in their subsequent game against Venezuela. The silver lining for Australia: That was only a 2-0 Venezuelan victory, thanks to some nice work by starter Phil Brassington and four relievers.
The Australians end an 18-inning scoreless streak in their finale Friday night against the Dominicans, but starter Damian Moss gives up four runs over the first three innings and the favorites complete the three-game Pool D sweep.
Italy loses to the Dominicans and the Venezuelans, making a game of it in the former. Although the experience does not last long, it leaves a lasting memory of Mike Piazza representing his ancestral roots. Edgar says at the end of "King Lear:" "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." And Piazza does just that before returning to his new Padres teammates at Spring Training in Arizona:
"The experience so far has been just awesome. We're having a lot of fun. We've come together very quickly as a team. It's a joy to work with the native Italians because they're very excited and very eager to learn. The fact that they were enthusiastic and supportive, that was the key."
Exit Australia and Italy.
To be continued.