MIAMI -- You know how we were talking the other day about how the World Baseball Classic isn't really about the U.S.A.? If you weren't convinced before, last night's game should have done it. This was the heavyweight championship the WBC had not managed to deliver in its first two go-arounds: the United States vs. the Dominican Republic, power against power. And while it was played in Miami, at Marlins Park, and the U.S. was technically the home team, in terms of atmosphere it was essentially a D.R. home game. And it was a great one.
The game was taut and intense, tied 1-1 heading into the ninth inning, at which point closer Craig Kimbrel uncharacteristically (really, really uncharacteristically) let the game get away, with pinch-hitter Erick Aybar of all people driving in the go-ahead run. The Dominican team exploded in celebration -- they rushed out of the dugout en masse, jumped and hugged and danced around.
Then they did it again when Jose Reyes singled in an insurance run…
…and again when they actually won the game.
Throughout the tournament, they've been gesturing in disbelief at umpire calls, shooting imaginary arrows (closer Fernando Rodney's signature move), fist-pumping. The other day Hanley Ramirez took a home run trot so leisurely that moss could have grown on his flipped bat. It's the kind of play that you rarely see in the majors, if only because opponents tend to get tetchy about being "shown up" and drill offenders the next time through the batting order. I have never been a fan of this approach -- if you don't want someone to show you up, play better -- but it's ingrained. Here in the WBC, however, we seem to be getting a break from that calcified code.
All of this has been, here in Miami, extremely fun to watch, boosted in no small part by the energy of the crowd, which Thursday night was perhaps 60 or 70 percent pro-D.R., and 100 percent earsplitting. They were reacting to every pitch, just like their team.
Naturally (as unselfconscious joy tends to do) this caused some grumbling on Twitter, from some U.S. fans and from baseball traditionalists. The Dominican team was over the top, or showing up their opponents, or violating baseball's much-vaunted and intensely dopey "unwritten rules." The horns were annoying and the vuvuzelas should be banned from the ballpark.
You may not care about the WBC, and you're certainly under no obligation to. But the fans at Marlins Park sure cared -- there's a phrase you will not likely see again in 2013 after Saturday -- and there's not an ounce of doubt that the Dominican team cared.
Now, does that mean the U.S. didn't? Of course not. As R.A. Dickey said on Wednesday, the day before his effective start, "A lot of times it's just different styles. Latin American is sometimes that way, and it's exciting. But don't mistake lack of running on the field for us as not being fully invested. It's just a different way to play sometimes, that's all." One needs to be wary in describing Latin American players or fans generally as passionate or intense (or as sweepingly anything), but there's no doubt that the atmosphere of these WBC games is different from what you typically get when two American teams play. After Thursday's game, U.S. manager Joe Torre echoed Dickey's sentiments: "There's passion on both sides, except it's shown a little bit differently." It's not that the Dominican team cares more, it's just that their style of play is custom-tailored to convey that, whereas the U.S. players have been brought up in a system that teaches that buttoned-down stoicism is the proper way to play the game.
It should be noted that no one on the American team, or any other, has complained (at least not publicly) about the D.R.'s celebrations. After their game against Italy on Tuesday, infielder Nick Punto was quick to say that it didn't bother him at all (and to point out that Team Italy was not exactly innocent of those displays either).
Jose Reyes, among others on the D.R. team, has been getting flak for this sort of thing for years and years, and yet it's those very qualities that have made him such a pleasure to watch. Said Dickey of Reyes on Wednesday, "I can't think of a better teammate that I've ever had. He's that good. In the clubhouse he's always smiling, and it's not fake, it's not manufactured. That's just an overflow of who he is, and it's fun." Mets fans will back Dickey up there, and after this season, it's likely Toronto fans will too.
After the game, Reyes talked to a few reporters in the dugout. "I'm the guy who loves to play with a lot of energy," he said. "The fans, they supported us all the way… I was jumping around like a little kid, because this is for our country, you know, we play for our country, we had to give everything we had on the field … we were jumping around in the dugout…"
The rest of what he said is almost completely inaudible because the crowd -- with their horns, vuvuzelas, drums and chants and general rejoicing -- was still so loud, 10-15 minutes after the game ended, that it drowned out his words on the recorder.
Both Nelson Cruz, who scored the tying run, and manager Tony Pena could not stop talking about that crowd. "We have to thank God for the fans we had today," said Cruz. "I think that thanks to them, we had that extra motivation that you don't have every day… they have a better team on paper, but we were playing with a lot of heart and a lot of desire to win… There's no doubt it's the best I ever played because of how the fans responded."
A day before the game, Manager Tony Pena told Ken Rosenthal, "What they're showing is emotion, and what I call our culture. It's not like we're trying to show up anybody. No. No. I want them to enjoy it. … We don't know when, if we ever, are going to get together with this group again. We had better enjoy each other as much as we can."
As a baseball fan, one of the worst feelings is when you start to suspect that a player cares less than you do. That's why we hate it so much when players don't run out a grounder or shrug off a loss: It makes us feel silly for getting emotional. This is why Yankees fans loved the near-psychotically competitive Paul O'Neill, and why fans across the country love those scrappy little gritsters who may not actually be all that great at baseball but, at the very least, are playing their hearts out.
And that's why criticism of the Dominican Republic team seems misplaced to me. Not only are they entertaining, they are explicitly showing their fans that they care, and care just as much as those fans ever have or ever will. You can certainly care without playing that way, and many if not all of the WBC teams do; there are many right ways to play the game, and many right ways to be a fan (and not all of them, thank goodness, involve vuvuzelas). Still, I fail to see the harm in this particular method of advertising emotional investment. I can certainly imagine being infuriated, as an opponent, when Fernando Rodney goes into his elaborate post-win choreography. But the solution to that is simply to play better next time so he can't do it again. It's all a bit silly, but you can do worse than silly.
Unwritten rules? If it was that important, someone would have written it down by now. This Dominican team has taken the unwritten rules and torn them into a million tiny unread pieces, and their fans here at the games have egged them on and inspired them. It has been fairly spectacular to watch, and a welcome break from business as usual. If the WBC is good for nothing else, it's certainly good for that.