W B C - Willfully Be Childlike
On Tuesday night of this week, I thought I was sitting in the cool drizzling environs of one of baseball’s shrines - the home of my Los Angeles Dodgers, but I traveled to Japan.
Last night, I took the subway and Lyft to get there again. Yet, as the cool, crisp spring air swirled around that same temple - the third oldest grand ol’ game palace - I journeyed this time to balmy Puerto Rico.
For some reason, that still confounds me to no end, the brilliant minds that run the tarnishing epicenter of international sport called the Olympics, kicked out America’s Pastime following the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Despite a history that dates back to the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, the IOC cranked the beloved game out of their park, faster than a t-ball meeting up with Big Papi.
So, twelve years ago, the wise men and women of Major League Baseball took up the mantel of international baseball competition and created the WBC (World Baseball Classic). This is its fourth tournament (played every four years like those Olympic things).
As much as Americans may love their game - I’m gonna have to say that the foreign lands, afar and near, that have adopted baseball as their own - just might love it more. Tuesday, on a foggy, drizzling evening, with the video board lighting up the night rain like a scene from BLADE RUNNER, two time WBC Champs, Japan took on the underdog U S of A. Despite having Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown stuffed in our pocket like a batting glove, our boys of summer have never even made the Final game, much less won this thing. Much smaller countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Korea have made it to the final dance and we’ve never gotten an invitation. Never the bride - always the usher.
The WBC Final Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.
Sitting with a fellow Dodger fan and baseball lover, we endured the atypical Dodger Stadium precipitation to witness not only an amazing game (tied 1-1 until the 8th inning), but we were also instantly beamed to a game in Hiroshima or Yokohama. Chavez Ravine, thanks to the over fifteen thousand Japanese fans, brought their passion and customs to this game. Fans sat all around us, painted in white geisha make-up with the Japanese flag emblazoned on their cheeks or arms. Giant white flags with red dots were waved from every corner of the house that Koufax built. Seated in the tippy-top rows of the left field pavilion was a ten piece brass band that played tunes through every Japanese batter’s at bat.
In unison, the Nippon baseball buffs would belt out a cheer for every batter, every pitch. It was the same tune over and over - the same chant. It wasn’t until about the fifth time that I realized that each cheer ended with the name of the batter at the plate. Names like Yamada, Nakata and Matsuda echoed from the field level to the bleachers and back again. They jumped and screamed when their players hit the ball and when they made a good play defensively. They were as passionate as Cub fans in Wrigley at the World Series or Yankees fans watching their pinstripes take on the BoSox.
At least half the fans in attendance Tuesday night were rooting for the team in white. And those surrounding us in Aisle 12 appeared to be from Japan - having made the long commute to watch their own all-stars compete in the game they have adopted as their own. They cheered right up to the final out, when it was finally clear that there would be no third Championship hardware for their squad.
Last night, it was my son, Simon, and I that boarded WBC Airlines and followed the jet stream to Puerto Rico. This was the Final Game - the one for all the bragging rights and marbles. The United States vs. their protectorate. Goliath vs. David’s little brother.
But make no mistake, this David came with a big slingshot and an even bigger rock. Puerto Rico was undefeated coming into the Championship game - having dismantled their opponents scoring a WBC record of fifty-five runs. They had a Murderer’s Row of sluggers and all-stars, including Carlos Beltran and World Series hero Javier Baez. The scrappy Americans (who had already lost once to Puerto Rico in the tournament) were clearly the underdogs.
As the game progressed, the nearly sold out crowd - evenly divided between fans cheering for the kids wearing Old Glory patches on their arms and those with the island nation flag - would cheer in unison: Half the folks around the diamond yelling PUERTO RICO!!, while the other half answered USA!! Over and over the chants would repeat in songlike banter.
Puerto Rico Fan at The WBC Final game in Los Angeles, CA.
It became one word, lyrics to a song everyone knew. Each voice, each side, indistinguishable from the other.
USA Fan at The WBC Final Game in Los Angeles, CA.
Fans were draped in giant flags. Blue, white and red wherever you looked. The two flags nearly the same, making it impossible to determine who were rooting for Puerto Rico and who for America.
In the end, on this one night, it was to be an All American hit parade. Toronto Blue Jay Marcus Stroman took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, while the red, white and Dodger blue hitters lit up the Puerto Rican pitchers. Los Angeles native and valley boy Christian Yelich had two hits and an RBI, as nearly every American helped lead their country to victory. The U.S. of A. finally stood atop the international mountain of baseball - the sport they invented, grew and planted seedlings around the globe.
On both nights, everyone in attendance sang Take Me Out to The Ballgame together, laughing and pointing at themselves when they showed up on the video board. Whether dressed for Kabuki theater or draped in a red and white striped flag with a blue triangle - everyone savored their first Dodger dog of the season, kicked back a Modelo or Bud - and played Jerry Rice to a Joe Montana pass of peanut bags from the vendor a first down marker away. No matter where we were from, baseball fans all, we were one in our love of this one game that doesn’t fight a clock and requires “sacrifice.”
I’ve been to plenty of tense, winner-take-all playoff games in those seats, in that stadium.
And you know what was missing this time? Hostility.
There were no BEAT LA signs. Or “Kill The Giants” t-shirts. Nobody came to watch their squad BEAT the American team, they came to see their Japanese or Puerto Rican boys win. And the difference was palpable. I was surrounded by fans of the opposing country on both nights, yet we laughed together, shared peanuts or took turns glaring at the umpires.
Sitting behind me the first night were six guys who had bought their tickets to travel from Tokyo to watch their Japanese All-Stars take home another winner’s trophy. I saw them huddled together as we all endured the rain on Tuesday. To my surprise, when Simon and I arrived on Wednesday, there they were again. They had bought tickets to the Final Game, and must have decided to go, even though their team had been eliminated the night before. They seemed just as thrilled as the night their players were on the diamond.
I turned to them in the second inning - asking, “Who you rooting for tonight?”
“AMERICA!” came the united reply.
Stan Brooks with Japanese Fans at The WBC in Los Angeles, CA.
Each time the U.S. would score a run I turned around and yelled ”HIGH FIVE” and slapped upturned hands with all six of them. It was AWESOME. With an eight run outburst, there were plenty of high fives to go around. When the third run scored, I turned around and their hands were already UP! - and in their best english they yelled;
High five indeed.
Two amazing nights.
Indistinguishable baseball fans everywhere you looked.
I was so darn happy I was there.
And yet, today I am left feeling a little sad.
My Lyft ride from the downtown Metro Station stop (the end of the line for the Expo Line) to Dodger Stadium was courtesy of Mike and his immaculately clean polished Volkswagen Jetta. Mike was driving for Lyft because his usual job at the Alhambra Car Wash was closed yesterday because of the rain Tuesday and possible rain Wednesday. On the days the car wash closes, nobody gets paid. He hadn’t earned any money washing cars this whole week.
Mike had been in the states two years, leaving his mother and sister in Mexico to find work and send money home. Mike was easily one of the cheeriest Lyft drivers I’ve ever had. He made waiting in the Dodger Stadium traffic more than bearable.
As I bolted out of Mike’s spiffy VW, headed for the Stadium, I should have been thinking about home runs, strike outs and stolen bases - yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mike lived in the kind of constant fear so many of my neighbors are experiencing because of the heightened national push to deport undocumented immigrants.
The beauty of the pastel blues of Dodgertown enveloped me and I was once again consumed by my love of baseball.
But today, I am left wondering why the childlike enjoyment of the WBC, the cheering, singing, band playing, flag waving, peanut sharing, high-fiving world of those two glorious nights, can’t be what we strive for in every international engagement?
Why must we act like Dodger and Giant fans so often - and not like WBC, Puerto Rico, USA and Japan fans? Why is the country divided like Yankees and Red Sox - and contemplating walls and “may I see your papers” - and not embracing what we love and share?
Like the Grand Old Game.
I loved this magical world of the WBC.
The baseball Brigadoon that pops up every four years, only to disappear again, is one of a mutual adoration for one of the planet’s favorite endeavors. If you get a chance - when next it arrives - GO! I promise you’ll love it.
Last night, after the game ended, players from both teams lingered on the field, as they waited for a makeshift stage to be erected for the trophy celebration. Before long, the two teams started embracing each other - hugging and laughing. Americans and Puerto Ricans became one big group of baseball teammates. So bueno.
I’d like to think that our best selves are the ones I saw last night and Tuesday night.
Maybe we should all try and be a little more W B C.