Every year, around the end of January or so, I start to fall into a sports funk.
The college football season is over, and of course, my team’s not headed to a BCS bowl game. The NFL season is nearly over, and my favorite team was just painfully eliminated from the playoffs. (Are you sensing a trend here?) I just don’t care about hockey or basketball very much. And spring training for my favorite sport seems eons away.
As a baseball fan, the winter is a long dark time for me, in more ways than one. During the late winter, I turn on ESPN, stare dejectedly at the screen for a few minutes, then turn it right back off again.
Apparently, God heard my annual January lament, and lo, he gave me the World Baseball Classic. Sixteen international teams, actual competition. It starts tomorrow, March 5. Rosters are filled; go check out your favorite country.
Now, I love spring training, I really do, because it means that baseball season is almost here again. But there’s not exactly a lot of urgency about the Grapefruit and the Cactus Leagues. I love them, but it would be generous to describe most of the games as low-key (the occasional brawl excepted, of course).
The most fun part of watching spring training games is seeing the parade of eager minor-leaguers and non-roster invitees at the plate. (Hey, look, it’s….um, who is that guy, again? Did he play for the Rockies last year? The Royals? Hmmm. Wait, the A’s, right?) But for those of us who also read the minor league reports in Baseball America, it’s always exciting to finally see that young prospect your team signed a few years ago. Still, the games often feel more like auditions than serious competitions—and that’s mostly because that’s what they are, more or less.
The World Baseball Classic games, by contrast, have a feel that’s a combination of a really intense league championship series and the Olympics. Heck, that’s a lot better than we’ve gotten at the World Series the last few years.
I know this because my husband and I attended one of the games in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. We saw Korea play Mexico in the night game on March 12. And we were completely surprised by the intensity displayed by the players and the fans alike.
It was quite an experience, actually. We sat in the outfield and squinted toward home plate. It was a cold blustery night (okay, cold and blustery for Southern California), and oh my, the fans were loud. I was nearly eight months pregnant, and I wanted to find a way to put my hands over the ears of my unborn child’s ears. Worse, I had just been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy a day earlier, and my own left ear was sensitive to the all-encompassing noise. The palsy was caused by paralysis of the fourth cranial nerve on the left side of my face, so I couldn’t blink my left eye, either. It alternately dried out from the wind or dripped tears.
So there I was, in the chilly night air with a weeping left eye and an overly sensitive left ear. Oh yes, and a huge belly full of baby who was rooting for one of the teams (couldn’t be sure which) by enthusiastically kicking my liver. I had to constantly shift my beached whale of a body back and forth in my little folding seat, for fear it would collapse under my weight—because leaving wasn’t an option. That should tell you what kind of a fan I am.
If you hadn’t known better, you would have sworn you were at a Yankees-Red Sox game. The cheers! The boos! The curses! Well, except we didn’t really understand most of the obscenities being yelled across the stands—between the two of us, we spoke rudimentary Spanish at best and absolutely zero Korean. Let’s just say they were, er, passionate.
But one thing came across loud and clear and needed no translation: these fans loved their baseball. And when I’m with other people who love baseball, I’m happy, too. So we cheered for the best pitches and the best hits, regardless of the player or the team. And we congratulated ourselves for getting the chance to see real live good baseball in March.
Korea beat Mexico, 2-1. We bought ourselves a few souvenir t-shirts and headed out. We followed the rest of the games at home, by computer and by television. We got our first taste of future Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka when he won the series MVP award, as Japan defeated Cuba for the first WBC title. I gave birth to my gorgeous son three weeks into the baseball season; we swaddled him in a little blanket printed with baseballs.
And the best part of the World Baseball Classic? We still had a whole regular baseball season ahead of us after it was over. Months and months and months of baseball. I didn’t have to experience the usual post-World Series depression that always sets in when I realize how long it will be before I get to turn on the TV and watch the day’s baseball highlights from my warm, cozy bed.
The first game of the 2009 World Baseball Classic starts at 4:30 a.m. EST on March 5. China and Japan will face off at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. Two days later, the U.S. team will enter the competition, squaring off against Canada at 2 p.m. at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. I could theoretically watch every single game, since they’ll all be broadcast by ESPN or the new MLB channel.
And maybe I will. After all, something has to make up for Alabama’s football team getting pummeled by Florida and then by Utah.