By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) All right, I’m sold.
I used to be anti-World Baseball Classic, caught up in an ignorant “new is bad” obtuse mentality of American baseball consumer and the WBC’s initial appearance to be something terribly Olympic, but shucks if I won’t be tuning into future ones. And what got me? The stripped down, uninhibited love-of-the-game fun of it all. Apologies if it was there in previous years and I couldn’t get over myself enough to notice.
I’m not one for patriotism in sports or pride in one’s nationality based on what athletes do against others — and the United States winning the WBC on Wednesday night didn’t change that — but this transcended the ickiness of the Olympics. And Jim Leyland crying after the championship even moved me.
It’s an unintentional indictment of Major League Baseball, because the league is a driving force behind further globalizing the game, but the WBC found a way to make baseball cool again. The only way the game is going to grow — in America or abroad — is with the embracing of cultures shown on the WBC stage.
The noisemakers. The coordinated cheers. Note to the Cubs Dixieland Band: You seem like swell folks, but I will catapult you for the Japanese brass band to take up residency at Wrigley Field immediately.
“In Japan, this type of cheering is standard,” Yoshihide Kubo of the group told the Los Angeles Times. “We want the players on Samurai Japan to be able to play games in as normal conditions as possible.”
I love that that is another country’s normalcy of baseball. It’s not the dumbass Wave or vanilla Let’s-go-(team name)-[clap-clap-clapclapclap] or the now-strained obligation to participate in the seventh-inning stretch. Be it the Japanese fans or the Dominican fans turning Marlins Park into one giant concert amp, the WBC exemplified that there’s no one way to be a great fan of baseball.
The fans from around the world weren’t about the American false dichotomy of “properness.” And this sort of attire from two Puerto Ricans highlights how Uncle Sam or 18th-century wigs are evidence of the bankruptcy of cool in American culture:
But that’s just the fan component. Even if a TV was on mute, the players made the actual playing of baseball some crazy fun theater. The Israeli team, populated with a lot of MLB players, was goofy and loose and a Cinderella and menschy and kind of forgot they’re supposed to be serious ambassadors of baseball conservatism. Cubs second baseman Javier Baez continued to show the world that he’s a unicorn with his glove work and swim slides and tags and exuding fun in everything he does on the field.
And nobody collectively spilled fun all over the field like the Dominican team, which showed game after game that baseball is more than gloves, cleats and bats. It’s a full-body joyful experience. And it’s made even better with Fernando Rodney and plátanos.
All of these groups came together to show that whatever possesses you with the Holy Ghost of Baseball is baseball the right way. Yet it was still a culture shock to some Americans, supposed decorum-holders of the game.
“I’ve played in a lot of playoff games, and I think this is better,” reliever Pat Neshek told the New York Times of the WBC environment.
He didn’t elaborate, but surely it had something to do with the different vibe with which these games were filled, as though this were all about something more than runs and outs and instead a validation of baseball as not something singularly geographic and certainly much more than a contest between white lines. That vibe didn’t jibe with Neshek’s USA teammate Ian Kinsler, though.
“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler said. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”
OK, this is a bad opinion tossed around for years in American baseball, rooted in baseball’s deep issues with race and articulated poorly by Kinsler. But the WBC is serving to highlight how antiquated that way of ballplayer thinking in America is (and Kinsler homering in the championship win doesn’t validate his thinking).
Whenever the “play the game the right way” comment squeaks out of somebody and almost always as a referendum on players of color, I’m taken back to something former Cubs catcher John Baker wrote about his experience playing in the Dominican Republic and seeing a baseball culture where bat flips and self-expression and “pimping” all accomplishments were integral in the game:
The next day I asked some of the local players why they participated in what I’d been taught was excessive celebratory behavior. Their consensus answer was perfect and humbling. They explained that most of them hadn’t spent much time in school beyond fifth grade, and they practiced baseball all day because they didn’t want to chop sugar cane in the fields or do laundry at Casa De Campo, the main resort in town. Job opportunities were slim, and job opportunities with potential upside were nearly nonexistent. They weren’t flipping the bat to show up the pitcher. They were flipping the bat to show everyone watching that they appreciated where they were, and that they really, truly loved playing baseball. They pimped everything, and it was awesomely poetic.
Every day on our way to the ballpark, we passed a large field, almost always with a bunch of kids practicing. The style of baseball on that rundown field was the same as the style I saw in our professional games. The kids in La Romana were learning a very different style of baseball than what I’d learned in California. The main point of their practice, however, was the same as mine: learning to score more runs than the other team. The more one practices, the better one gets and, ideally, the better the opportunity. More than their abilities and their accomplishments, these kids celebrated their opportunities. Their celebrations were, in essence, highly personal thank-you notes to the game for the opportunities.
That all feels very much like “the right way” to do baseball to me, and I saw that on display in the WBC. And what Kinsler and many white American big leaguers who wax neanderthal on what’s “the right way” to play baseball disregard is most of white pro ballplayers didn’t turn to baseball as an escape from a life of manual labor or crime. Baseball didn’t save most of them. Many of them are products of exclusive travel teams and expensive equipment, where baseball became a job for them at a young age and lost its child’s soul long before their seven-to-nine-figure contracts.
Baseball here has forever excluded and separated, which makes “America’s pastime” an apt nickname considering the country’s history pre-baseball and otherwise. Whether it be segregating players of color to collusion against would-be free agents. To youth leagues mutating into clubs only for those kids with parents who can cut big checks for league fees, travel and equipment to fans still dismissing female baseball writers and talkers. Baseball’s innocent, socialist foundations quickly went awry in American and still today have an air of acceptance only for those who walk a starchy line.
If anything, it’s Americans who learn to play baseball the wrong way.
By separating players into countries of origin, the WBC ironically frees the non-Americans from the policing of emotion that comes with the “gift” of baseball as product of colonialism. It’s then we get to see great baseball played with a youthful spirit not shamed into repression as children. The Puerto Rican blonde dye jobs are the worst looks since The Meteor Man, but that’s a very youthful sort of team bonding in what, for other nostalgic purposes by old scribes, often gets called a kids’ game.
People have issues when rules changes get discussed in baseball, and many are justified beefs. The extra-inning rule in the WBC is absolute trash, and there were times where replay reviews killed the energy. But culture change is different, and the WBC has it, and it’s awesome.
Which is while I’ll be watching these exhibition games in future. Because they feel like baseball done the right way.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.