Classic leaves lasting impression on world stage
Dominicans' spectacular run indicative of tournament's high quality of play
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the Caribbean and the Far East, in the Netherlands and in Italy, and even in some parts of the United States where winning isn't everything, they're finding one big flaw in the World Baseball Classic.
It won't come around again until 2017.
The 2013 edition of the Classic lived up to its billing. Culminating in the Dominican Republic's 3-0 decision over Puerto Rico in Tuesday night's championship game at AT&T Park, it was by any measure an unqualified success. A novel idea when it took shape in 2006, the Classic has become part of the sport's culture and fabric.
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Consider the weight of the words softly spoken by Dominican Republic general manager Moises Alou -- a 17-year Major League veteran with 2,134 hits and 332 home runs -- in the afterglow of his team's 8-0 run to the title.
"To win the way we did is unbelievable," Alou said, seemingly in awe that the team he helped put together had become the first unbeaten Classic champion. "It's the greatest feeling in my career."
In the big picture, what was most remarkable about this 17-day global show was the quality of play. There was no reason to expect baseball this good in March, when bodies are supposed to be getting fine-tuned for the tasks ahead.
This was midsummer good.
Passion and pride, precision and purpose came shining through in the acts and actions of athletes from all corners of the baseball map. That it came down to two Caribbean clubs on a cool, drizzly night in the Bay Area seemed natural and just. It simply meant more to these athletes and their fans. You couldn't miss that.
"Two Latin American teams being in the [final] makes it more exciting," Dominican Republic reliever Octavio Dotel said.
The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were the best teams in the Classic, but others performed with distinction, from Japan to the Kingdom of the Netherlands (slaying Cuba) to Italy. Oh, the Italians. Team Heartbreak. They had early leads against both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and let them get away. Not everyone can have a Fernando Rodney.
Team USA made some noise but fell silent when David Wright was forced out of the lineup. In this competition, without benefit of the brand of winter ball that warmed the Caribbean athletes, the U.S. is still struggling to catch its Classic stride. It was a .500 team again, third time in a row. But there is no shame in that.
When you're outplayed, you put on your "big boy pants," as NBA superstar Kobe Bryant likes to say, and vow to go to work and be better next time.
There's no pouting in baseball. Japan, champion of the first two Classics, handled its numbing loss to Puerto Rico in the semifinals with dignity and grace. Anyone who has been around Japanese ballplayers would have expected nothing less.
Wait till 2017. That's what they're saying in Japan.
Accepting their runner-up mementos Tuesday night, Puerto Rico's players and staff could have retreated to the clubhouse. But they stood in the rain along the first-base line watching the Dominicans carry an enormous flag across the field, dancing, hugging and jumping around, gold championship medallions swinging from their necks.
"We are a bit disappointed," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said, "but my guys are leaving with their heads up. This has been a good championship. Here we are. They should be very proud, each member of this team."
Alfredo Griffin, the wise old shortstop who coaches the Angels and was on manager Tony Pena's Dominican staff, assessed the quality of play in this Classic as measurably improved over the first two.
"This was the best Classic," Griffin said. "Players were in better shape. There were some teams with great talent that didn't get to the [Championship Round].
"The talent we had on the 2006 team [in the inaugural Classic] was unbelievable. But this team had better relievers. The bullpen was lights out."
Alou was part of that '06 powerhouse, along with Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada. Cuba eliminated that Dominican dream team, 3-1, in the semifinals after it had won five of six.
No missteps this time. Dotel, Pedro Strop, Santiago Casilla and Rodney finished the gem started by Samuel Deduno's five innings. The quartet allowed one hit and two walks with five strikeouts.
"Wow," Alou said. "It's got to be the best bullpen I've ever seen."
Rodney is Mr. March. Appearing in the first and third Classics, the quirky closer has worked 12 spotless innings, allowing three hits and six walks, striking out 15. Ringing up Luis Figueroa for the final out, Rodney slipped into his familiar routine, shooting an imaginary arrow to the heavens as teammates raced to his side.
Oh, yes, the Dominicans can celebrate. They came flying out of the dugout when Edwin Encarnacion crushed a two-run double in the first inning against Giancarlo Alvarado. Why wait until the ninth?
"It's the way we play the game," Dotel said. "We play from the heart. I hope everybody understands that."
Tejada, the voice of calm reason, was a central figure with the '06 and '09 powerhouses that fell short. His best years are behind him, but he is part of a team -- the 2013 champions -- that will be remembered forever in his homeland.
On Tuesday, Tejada said, "We have to leave each other, and that's the only sad thing -- that we will no longer be together as a team. Honestly, this has been an awesome week."
As Robinson Cano, the Classic MVP, put it, "You always remember the first time. This is always going to be in our hearts, for the rest of our lives."
No need to wait till 2017.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.