World Baseball Classic brings patriotism to San Diego

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) certainly has its detractors. Baseball’s premier international tournament has drawn criticism on numerous issues in the past. The WBC was first played in 2006 and now is in its fourth iteration.

The biggest problem many see with it is the injury risk it poses to its participants. Major League Baseball has a 162-game season ahead of it, so adding competitive games to the schedule more than a month before Opening Day can carry some risk to athletes’ durability.

This is especially the case with pitchers, who seem to push their arms to the limit with every blazing heater and biting curve they throw.

This potential injury risk, a peril that may put both players and executives on edge, leads many of the game’s true elite to opt out of participating.

Do-everything superstar Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim isn’t playing. Neither is divisive slugger Bryce Harper, nor Cy Young-worthy flamethrowers like Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Noah Syndergaard.

As a result, for many fans—especially those in the United States—the tournament lacks the luster that large-scale international events in other sports can be counted on to provide.

And yet, for any fan who enters the stadium on game day, those problems melt away as passion and patriotism grab hold.

San Diego’s Petco Park was home to one side of the 2017 WBC’s second-round match-ups this past week. The downtown venue provided hometown hardball fans with a glimpse at four teams—Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and the United States—with sights set on winning it all, as well as a stadium experience unmatched by a typical game in the majors.

American players stand to honor their country as the national anthem plays. Photo courtesy of WBC Baseball/Twitter

With a ticket in the right field bleachers in tow, I made the short trek to Petco Park, ready for a win-or-go-home collision between two baseball powerhouses in the United States and the Dominican Republic, ready to decide for myself whether the WBC was worth the constant worries it can never seem to dissuade.

Nine action-packed innings and four hours later, I was returning home with a newfound appreciation for the sport’s worldwide fan base and a renewed level of support for the homegrown team that claimed victory.

Sure, the players themselves certainly showed up. Each of the four teams that visited America’s Finest City could boast of having one of the best baseball rosters ever assembled, and the U.S. and the D.R. led the pack in that regard.

For the Dominicans, their biggest strength appeared to be a buzzsaw of a line-up akin to a modern-day Murderers’ Row, featuring standout MLB sluggers including Adrian Beltre, Starling Marte, Robinson Cano, and Manny Machado.

Their pitching staff wasn’t far behind, with strikeout artists such as Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, and Alex Colome leading the way.

The United States, despite lacking the aforementioned royalty of Trout, Kershaw, and Harper, seemed more than capable of matching the D.R. all night, with a lineup led by Nolan Arenado at the hot corner and hulking homer-hunter Giancarlo Stanton backing a rotation carried by up-and-coming lefty Danny Duffy and bullpen ace Andrew Miller.

There was certainly no shortage of talent taking the field at Petco Park. But the game quickly went beyond that. With everything that stood out on the field that night and all last week, the most telling part of the WBC experience had everything to do with what happened off the field.

It began with the national anthem. As the first chords of The Star-Spangled Banner blared over the loudspeakers, everything in the ballpark slowed to a stop. Players lined the baseline with ball caps draped across their chest.

Fans on the concourses stopped the ongoing march to their seats and paid tribute to the flag. Even food vendors removed their visors and paused their work in recognition.

That proved to be just a small taste of the patriotism to follow. As soon as the first pitch was thrown, chants from both sides of the aisle cascaded down onto the diamond below. The Dominicans marched through the stadium with percussion instruments, celebrating a game that borders on religion in their home country and rooting for a victory with no signs of letting up until the final out was made.

Those who didn’t join the parade danced in the stands, showing almost no awareness of the score as they focused instead on enjoying another night at the ballpark.

It was a drastic change from the traditional stadium experience here in the United States, one built largely on casual applause and the occasional invitation from the scoreboard to “get loud.”

In the early innings, it appeared the American fans, uncomfortable in this bubble of fever-pitched baseball fandom backed by relentless rhythm and song, would be outdone by their visiting counterparts.

It’s funny how a lead can change that.

Giancarlo Stanton’s home run invigorated the USA fans at Petco Park. Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report/Twitter

A Giancarlo Stanton missile that surely bruised the brick facade of the Western Metal Supply Co. building in Petco Park’s left field corner put the U.S. ahead in the fourth. Suddenly, screams of “U-S-A” filled the stands, a wave of palpable patriotic fervor crashing against the stadium’s suddenly-empty seats as fans jumped to their feet as one mass of happy humanity.

The ballpark was loud, and it would only get louder.

In the seventh, with the Americans leading by two against a team that had played dominant spoiler to so many U.S. squads in tournaments past, Manny Machado lifted a fly ball deep toward the center field wall. As soon as ball met bat, Machado appeared certain he had left the yard, dropping his bat and admiring another long home run.

However, American center fielder Adam Jones had other ideas. With a near-perfect route, Jones sprinted back to the wall, leaping toward a throng of fans and spearing the ball high above the wall before returning to Earth, a smile on his face and the ball grasped firmly in his undoubtedly-Gold glove.

The stadium lost its mind. Jones, a San Diego native, had given the United States the iconic WBC moment they desperately needed.

Giving in to an enthusiastic explosion all but unknown to most baseball fans here in the States, chills made their way down the spines of thousands of shouting USA baseball supporters. The moment had opened the door for an electricity sure to zap everyone in the building into total awareness of the situation at hand.

This was what the WBC was all about.

Two innings later, the game was in hand and the Americans had booked their second trip to the tournament’s semi-finals, defeating a Dominican team that, before arriving in San Diego, hadn’t lost in eight years.

Eric Hosmer rounds third base and sprints for home. Photo courtesy of WBC Baseball/Twitter

It was a huge moment, and a historic one for a U.S. squad that has had its share of disappointments in past WBC appearances. And yet, on both sides of the game’s outcome, love of both nation and national pastime endured. American fans continued chanting. Dominican fans continued dancing.

University of San Diego senior Austin Jacobs was in attendance for the dramatic game, and commented on his raucous surroundings.

“All night, the energy of the environment was phenomenal,” Jacobs said. “There was no hatred, only love of baseball and country.”

For all of its latent limitations, this is where the WBC excels. Nowhere else does the passion and the patriotism seem so enthrallingly and intoxicatingly powerful than in this preseason showcase of global significance.

There are few things in sports like it. For a week in mid-March, America’s Finest City was lucky enough to get its own taste of the action, complete with a legendary play by a San Diego kid.

Written by Noah Hilton, Asst. Sports Editor