Elimination baseball games are a rare treat. Win and go on, lose and go home: that doesn’t happen all that often. It’s so rare, in fact, that elimination games are one of the few non-Cardinal baseball games I’ll watch on television anymore. Astros playing the Dodgers for the World Series Championship? Not my circus and not my monkeys. Also, I think I need to clean my garage. Astros playing the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series? Okay, I’ll turn it on but it better be close or I’m switching to whatever the hell else is on the millions of channels, streaming services and websites that are available to me, an American consumer.
Baseball matters the most to me when it’s my team. I’m not alone. Teams are like that. You watch them for a season and you learn who they are and how they play, how they talk and walk and maybe even a little about who they are as people. I’ve watched Adam Wainwright since 2006 and I can say with utmost certainty that he’s not afraid to speak in public and loves to sing. I’ve watched Paul Goldschmidt for a couple of years now and can say with utmost certainty that he does not like to speak in public and you’ll never find recording of him singing anything other than the national anthem. I know these fellas. And I love to watch them play.
But man, I hate watching them in elimination games.
I don’t know how you spent Game 6 in 2011 but I spent the last three innings on a couch at a friend’s house vibrating. Couldn’t speak. Could barely swallow my beer. As the rednecks’ll tell you, I was something like a cat with a broken tail in a room full of rocking chairs. We won. And I exhaled my body into celebration but those last few innings were too exhilarating to enjoy in the moment. That’s what an elimination game means to a fan: you’ll enjoy the win. After you win.
When the World Baseball Classic started this year I was pretty happy about it. It’s neat baseball. You get lots of elimination games that you need not invest in emotionally. When Puerto Rico lost to Mexico, I had fun. I felt bad for Puerto Rico and good for Mexico but honestly I really didn’t care. It was great baseball. The limitations are weird because Spring Training (gotta get your work in—Team Venezuela don’t sign your MLB paychecks) and tournament baseball has a real little league feel to it that the presence of Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Trout doesn’t exactly lend itself to but hey, it’s better than listening to some 70 year old broadcaster complain about the pitch clock while birds chirp in some future fireman’s backswing.
But this year was more than just neat and fun. This year was awesome.
Thirteen Cardinal Major League ballplayers went to play in this year’s World Baseball Classic which I personally found intriguing. Suddenly, on dang near every team there was one of my monkeys so it kind of became my circus. And one I was quite happy to attend.
First and foremost I, like the rest of the baseball world, fell in love with the Lars Nootbaar story. The story of the first American born, half-Japanese citizen to play for Team Japan. The story of a young man who’d dreamt of playing for his mother’s country since he was ten years old. Nootbaar not only embraced the Japanese club, he latched on to them like a sucker fish on the side of a dirty fish tank. His presence also went a long way towards helping fight racism in one of the most openly racist countries in the world. All of the sudden, people who hated "half-breeds" had to decide whether to be racist or to root for the kid from California. Most chose the kid from California, and the ones that didn’t were chastised by the ones that did. In the end Team Japan won it all and Japanese culture was slightly altered. By Lars Nootbaar. I mentioned earlier how we get to know the players we watch a little and I think we all know someone like Lars. And I don’t think we expect any of them to influence national emotions and help combat racism in local culture. But here we are.
Secondly of course was Team USA, which featured one of the best lineups and one of the worst rotations America could put together. American players still aren’t on board with the World Baseball Classic but we’re getting there. It would help if asshats like Keith Olberman would stop expressing their disdain for fun but I digress. Eventually, some kind and smart person will convince US born pitchers that they can still have a good season following the WBC but we’re just not there yet. Nevertheless, it was fun watching Trea Turner, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt drop series saving bombs and keep US hopes alive.
There’s more of course. There’s Andre Pallante giving team Italy a chance, Jo Jo Romero and Gio Gallegos giving up game winning runs to Team Japan, Yadier Molina refusing to take Adam Wainwright’s phone calls until Puerto Rico was eliminated, every stupid thing Randy Arozarena did with Mexico (nice sombrero, Goofball), Team Cuba’s bullpen catcher defecting, just about everything revolving around Team Great Britain’s uniforms, Ohtani getting struck out by that electrician from Czechoslovakia (his grandkids are already tired of this story), Tommy Edman having fun on a team that put up 22 runs in a game, Tyler O’Neill batting over .600 for Team Canada, Loan Depot Park hosting more sellouts in two weeks than the Marlins will see in a decade, all the fans dressed up in their patriotic outfits and enjoying the ever-loving hell of it and of course the final goodbye, with Lars Nootbaar, Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish hugging the other Team Japan members goodbye as they get on a plane to go start their respective Nippon League seasons.
Does this mean as much to me as a Cardinal’s World Series? Of course not. I’m a long-time Cardinal’s fan who would sacrifice every Team USA victory in the history of the Classic just to go back in time and have Don Denkinger reverse that blown call in the 1985 World Series. To me, this is just a more fun Spring Training. But when I saw my team’s Right Fielder hugging his Japanese teammates, proudly displaying their World Classic Champion medallions as they got on that plane, I couldn’t help but get a little misty eyed.
Meaningful baseball is back in one week; it also ended last night.