BOSTON—The fact that the United States won the World Baseball Classic isn’t the point. Adam Jones and Eric Hosmer may have played with the fervor and passion of flag-waving Olympic athletes of yesteryear, but this isn’t the same.
The diligent, exhaustive work so many in Major League Baseball have put into the WBC for a dozen years has now been realized, with historic passion on display in Miami and sellout crowds in Tokyo. This year’s tournament was a success because it celebrated the diversity that has made our country great.
A decade ago, Orlando Hernandez and I used to have a little fist-bumping celebration with the words “boat people,” which signified the fact that we all come from somewhere by boat, whether it be Cuba or England or Italy. In fact, MLB celebrates its diversity each year on April 15, which was the day Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers—seven years before the Supreme Court struck down school segregation.
In a period in American history when diversity of cultures and religions have become such a political hot-button divide, this WBC gloried the opposite. Part of the reason the games were so compelling was the passion and pride of players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Even Israel’s team sparked a pride in many of my Jewish friends.
A couple of years ago, when Yasiel Puig’s bat flips and sometimes wild-boar approach to the game became so controversial, one Red Sox executive said, “We love him in our house because that’s the way my boys play.” Indeed, that’s the way a lot of us played when we were 10 and developing our bond to baseball.
What has been so interesting in the four WBCs that have transpired since 2006 is the different baseball cultures on display. And while baseball is played internationally, it is our game because it is inclusive, so much so that a bridge in Boston is named for David Ortiz and a statue of Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh has become a monument. Some day in Seattle a statue will honor Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki.
When Jose Fernandez hit his first big league home run in 2013, he did what he did growing up in Cuba: He flipped his bat. The Braves took offense, and Fernandez later said he better understood that the flip was from his culture, not the American baseball culture he struggled so hard to join.
During this year’s WBC, American kids saw and embraced all those diverse baseball cultures. Few complained about the players’ joy. And because failure is such a part of the game, Adam Jones celebrated when he leaped over the fence to help save one U.S. victory. He didn’t show up an opponent. He embraced the moment. Adam Jones is described on Wikipedia as “flamboyant,” but he is a proud father who carries out whatever message Orioles manager Buck Showalter needs delivered.
Dennis Eckersley pumped his fist when he closed games, and it bothered some who didn’t know him. Greg Maddux on the mound was stoic, a human metronome who in his career faced 20,244 batters (excluding intentional walks) and fell into a 3-0 count just 135 times. Pedro Martinez pitched with the flair of a Spanish matador. All are in Cooperstown.
Henry Aaron and Willie Mays had completely different styles, and they might be the two best players the game has ever seen.
While growing the game through the WBC goes hand in hand with growing revenues, the tournament has grown the game to include cultures and styles that encourage imagination. That the U.S. won was a celebration of American baseball culture, but the tournament in its entirety was a celebration of the game’s diversity.
The WBC showed us how vital freedom of expression is to baseball, and how important global diversity is to the game’s viability.
— For more from Peter Gammons, go to GammonsDaily.com