In tonight’s second-round World Baseball Classic match-up, the United States and the Netherlands face off in Miami. Team USA was humiliated 11-1 by Puerto Rico last night, and another loss would force its elimination from the tournament.
Of course, under normal circumstances, I would be rooting for the Americans all the way. (And, as an avid collector of sports memorabilia, I even possess the appropriate paraphernalia for doing so.) But the World Baseball Classic doesn’t feel quite normal. Rather, its very premise – that players’ nationalities are supposed to be the basis for my rooting interests – feels totally forced. For example, I’m a lifelong New York Mets fan – so how hard can I root against lovable Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who played for the recently eliminated Dominican Republic team? Similarly, I’m a lifelong hater of the New York Yankees – so does being an American patriot mean that I must suddenly root for Derek Jeter? Moreover, to the extent that being a Mets fan has given me a reflexive sensitivity for underdogs, rooting for the Netherlands – a team with only one Major League player on its roster – over the chock-full-of-professionals USA would actually feel quite natural. Or, to put it another way, do I really have to root for Derek Jeter?
There are many reasons why the World Baseball Classic has failed to generate much enthusiasm in the United States, and I suspect that the very dilemma that I will face later this evening is one of them. One of the interesting paradoxes regarding baseball in America is that despite being our national pastime, the sport generates relatively little national pride. Indeed, baseball more frequently divides us than it unites us: we typically root for our hometown teams, while the hometown team’s regional rival (and its fans) becomes our sworn enemy. (Perhaps things are different in East Asia and Latin America, where annual baseball tournaments pitting national teams against one another are held, thus tying baseball more closely with national pride and catalyzing more excitement for the World Baseball Classic.)
Moreover, baseball’s social legacy as a breaker of racial and ethnic barriers in this country makes rooting on the basis of players’ national origins feel somewhat uncomfortable – almost blasphemous. Or, to put it another way, can I really justify rooting against Jose Reyes because he’s not American? (Answer: only if he joins the Yankees.)
Still, when game time arrives, I will probably root for Team USA. After all, what’s the Netherlands to me? And, more importantly, I’d be devastated if the Americans’ quick exit made it easier for either Cuba or Venezuela to win a “world championship.” Patriotism may not motivate my rooting interests much, but the horrifying prospect of a smiling Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez? Now there’s something that gives me a stake in this tournament.