Two Red Sox will play in the upcoming World Baseball Classic: Hanley Ramirez, who will suit up for the Dominican Republic, and Xander Bogaerts, who will play for the Netherlands. The small contingent is a reflection of what the once-domestically promising WBC has become — an international exhibition existing in America mostly to sell dope caps — when, for at least a few hours in 2006, it looked like the greatest sporting even in the world, chock full of once and future Sox.
When the WBC was first announced in 2005, just after baseball was dropped as an Olympic sport, I bought tickets to the semifinal and final rounds and flew out to San Diego. If this was going to permanently replace the Olympic baseball tournament, my body was ready. My ideas of the WBC’s potential grandeur were delusional even at the time, but I wanted to believe, and the trip was worthy ever penny.
There were current and future Red Sox everywhere, but we’ll get to them in minute. First, awakening. The crowd for the single-elimination Japan/South Korea semifinal is, to this day, the best one of which I’ve ever been a part. The Koreans, at 6-0, had beaten the favored Japan, their historical baseball and geopolitical rival, twice in the preliminary rounds... and Ichiro was very mad about it. Before the tournament, he said he wanted to beat them so bad they wouldn’t want to play Japan for another 30 years. He was out for revenge and if he lost again, he’d look like a fool.
Through six innings, there was no score, and the atmosphere was certifiably lit. Petco was packed with Korea fans dressed in light blue and white, chanting in unison and with glee and generally bringing the universe alive. It was the first time I had experienced this type of crowd, and I felt I had been brought online as a fan — this was the baseball experience at its best and most thrilling, the raw power of the crowd choreographed for something far more satisfying than the wave.
Then, as if Petco had pulled the plug on Wi-Fi (anachronism alert!), the magic stopped. Japan scored five times in the top of the seventh, shut the crowd up and put the game out of reach just before a rain delay — in San Diego -- which basically emptied the part. Korea wouldn’t score, with Japan starter Koji Uehara going 7 innings of no walk, 8-K ball. That’s right: It was Koji Time.
Ichiro went 3-for-5, by the way, because he is the best.
Japan would face Cuba in the final, after Cuba beat the Dominican Republic 3-1 earlier the same afternoon. This sounds like totally normal thing until I list the D.R.’s lineup, which will I shall hereby list blow your mind:
Plácido Polanco, 2B
Miguel Tejada, SS
Albert Pujols, 1B
David Ortiz, DH
Adrián Beltré, 3B
Moises Alou, LF
Wily Mo Peña, RF
Alberto Castillo, C
Willy Taveras, CF
Wily Mo took Vladimir Guerrero’s place in the starting lineup. Wily Mo! And that’s still not the greatest par. The starting pitcher: Bartolo Colon. The man himself, toward the end of his first prime. They were the popular favorites for a reason. And they lost!
They lost to a Gourriel-brother-boasting curiosity of Cuba team that also employed Alexei Ramirez. It was obviously the first time I saw them, and it was cool, but the Japan/Cuba final was a bloated mess, with Japan beating out Cuba in a 10-4 slog. The winner pitcher, and the guy everyone was really there to see, was a guy named Daisuke Matsuzaka. With that, the future Red Sox bonanza was complete.
Now that players from not only Japan but Korea, Cuba and pretty much have greater freedom of movement, the novelty of that first WBC has worn off in America, and with baseball back in the Olympics, the U.S. probably won’t be matching international enthusiasm for the game any time soon. There are simple lessons here: there is no Koji Time! without Koji, and Koji went from being one of “them” to one of “us” over a decade that has been pretty good to Sox fans, on and off the field. On a day we drew new cultural lines as we acknowledge a deliberate nationalist turn, it’s important to remember that “they” and “we” are always apt to be the same people, eventually, no matter how hard we try to ignore it.