With every crack of the bat at the World Baseball Classic final on Tuesday, one thought reappeared in my head: I can’t wait for real baseball to start.
I could smell the hot dogs, hear the ball hit the mitt, but if Hanley Ramirez wasn’t at the plate getting showered by a chorus of boos, AT&T Park lacked the tension, the drama, the electricity of Giants baseball.
Of course, this is a completely U.S.-centric view of the WBC. If the goal of the tournament is to expand baseball’s global reach, it was a ringing success this year.
Twenty-eight countries fielded teams for qualifications this time around. Brazil made its first appearance, Italy advanced to the second round and the Netherlands competed in the semifinals.
While American sports fans were shuffling through the brackets on Selection Sunday, an astonishing 74 percent of TV viewers in Puerto Rico tuned in to watch their heroes shut the door on Japan in the semifinal. The second-round game between Japan and Taiwan registered the highest cable rating in Taiwan’s history and the TV audience in Japan for its contest with the Netherlands two days later outdrew the 2012 Olympics and every other sporting event held in the past 12 months.
It’s pleasing to hear that this event is attracting so much attention across the globe. But if you’re someone who counts down the hours until Opening Day, the real excitement starts when Matt Cain takes the hill against Clayton Kershaw in front of 55,000 blue-clad fans at Chavez Ravine on April 1. Everything else is an appetizer.
I really want to love this tournament. I do. But why should I care if the best players aren’t interested?
We watch sports for the passion that radiates through the TV screen: Jim Harbaugh’s eyes, Tim Lincecum’s “F*** yeah!” the joy of 13 Little Leaguers from Petaluma converging at home plate after an extra-inning win.
Passion is what connects the multimillionaire celebrity and 12-year-old pinch-hitter to the couch potato yelling at his or her TV from home. This is what makes the World Cup and Olympic hockey so compelling. The players’ desire to win for their country is right up there with bringing home whatever trophy they’re competing for as professionals in their respective sports. Winning gold means so much in hockey, the NHL Players Association demanded a break from the 2013-14 season so its players can compete in the Sochi Games next winter.
But the biggest names on the diamond aren’t participating in the World Baseball Classic because it could interfere with what really matters in this sport: the Major League Baseball season.
And it isn’t just the Americans who are sitting this thing out. The Dominican Republic won without its best pitcher and player, Johnny Cueto and Albert Pujols; Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish chose spring training over the Japanese team; even Shin-Soo Choo couldn’t make it out for the South Koreans.
Yes, the event is gaining momentum around the world, but only 35,703 fans came out for the final here in The City and that seems generous considering the plethora of green patches in the upper deck.
Where was everybody? Probably at home watching the NCAA Tournament’s play-in game. No one has ever declined a chance to compete in March Madness.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.