The team representing the country that considers baseball to be its National Pastime won the 2013 World Baseball Classic and it’s not us, or U.S. That would be the Dominican Republic, a nation of whom it could probably be said is more passionate about baseball than any country in the world.
Samuel Deduno, who is vying to become the fifth starter for the Minnesota Twins, was the winning pitcher and Fernando (Automatic Out) Rodney picked up his seventh save as the Dominican Republic polished off Puerto Rico, 3-0,Tuesday night in San Francisco. Rodney posted an 0.60 earned run average for Tampa Bay last year and it appears he’s still got it.
Somewhere between the Major League debuts of Felipe, Matty, and Jesus Alou and Juan Marichal in the 1950s, and this week, the Dominican Republic not only became one of the best baseball-playing countries in the world year in and year out, but emerged as the most devoted. Sammy Sosa and his 609 home runs helped. Pedro Martinez and his wicked fastball helped. So did Ozzie Virgil, Tony Pena (who managed this team), Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Rico Carty, Vladimir Guerrero and a host of others of Dominican heritage.
The Alous, Marichal and Virgil laid the foundation and they were heroes at home when they played in the big-time in the states. Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, even the nations where baseball is generally most appreciated, soccer was never king in the Dominican. The youngsters admired the Dominicans they watched long-distance on television in the majors and said they wanted to grow up and be like them. These were poor youngsters who manufactured their own baseballs by rolling socks into balls and taping them into a round shape, kids that formed gloves out of cardboard.
They loved the game, but they were also looking for a way to uplift their lives and the family’s lives from poverty. Not only did they pursue a sport, and a profession, in which they would gain the admiration of their countrymen, but as the years passed and baseball salaries increased, the financial opportunities and rewards became staggering for those who became stars. The most talented players became millionaires and legends in their home country. Hard to beat that.
At various times during the 20th century, American boys with dreams followed different sports career paths. Basketball and football provided free college educations and a path out of the ghetto and possibly to riches. Boxing was the hope for a variety of ethnic groups over time that literally were seeking to fight their way out of poverty.
For most of the 20th century, though, the sport that mattered most to the most people was baseball. The National Pastime moniker was deserved. Football began eroding baseball’sbase after the 1958 Baltimore Colts-New York Giants NFL sudden death overtime game and the appetite for the sport grew from there.
Over the decades it was obvious that the best baseball was played in the United States, that the NBA was the best basketball league and the NHL was the best hockey league. Except for place kickers, foreigners never have infiltatrated the NFL much, but if you look over the names on NBA and NHL rosters now there are a multitude of names that you can’t pronounce from nations that you have trouble locating on a map.
The mass migration of foreign basketball and hockey players pretty much has occurred over the last two decades. The trickle of players from other nations began in Major League baseball long before that and has only expanded as more countries took the sport seriously. More and more Japanese players find teams in the majors. Players from South Korea show up. But the Latino baseball movement has been an explosion, depending on the recent season, with approximately 25 percent of players on big-league rosters originating in the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Mexico or other Caribbean countries.
Over the short history of the World Baseball Classic the U.S. has not fared particularly well. It’s hard to get American players psyched about playing. Pro basketball players embraced the Summer Olympics, pro hockey players embraced the Winter Olympics. Baseball was exiled from the Olympics and the WBC substitute has not resonated as strongly as it should with American players.
It is easy to feel good for the Domincan Republic’s triumph in this WBC. The team played the best and the country cared the most.