Are you ready for a world where Italy is the best baseball playing country in the world? You might want to think about it. As I type this, Team Italy* is leading the Dominicans 4-1 in the fifth inning and threatening to put more on the board.** It’s a thought that never crossed my mind before, but it’s real.
*I have a hard time calling them “the Italians.” We’ll discuss in a bit.
**The Dominicans ended up winning 5-4. Took them until the 8th both tie and get ahead.
A few things to take from this. One the other side of the bracket, we have only mild surprise. Of course Japan won that said, they were the home team and the only team to win this whole tournament so far. There might be a little surprise for the Dutch over the Cubans, but as we’ve talked about before, if you remember Curacao, it makes sense. I watched a good chunk of that game this morning, the Dutch made things interesting for about a half inning before Japan put their foot down on that comeback attempt.
That brings us to this game. Is there a more underachieving national team than the Dominican Republic baseball team? Dominicans dominate major league baseball. Take a look at the Dominican roster. That’s a stacked team if there ever was one. This is not a new trend, either. Yet, in the first tournament, they managed fourth place and didn’t make it out of pool play in 2009. The US is just slightly better, as they managed a fourth place showing in 2009 and got to the second round in 2006. Still not good. If you had a general poll of the top baseball countries, I would imagine the US, Japan, and the Dominican would be universally the top three in some order. Maybe Cuba would sneak in here and there. But two of those teams have just plain not got the job done in this tournament.
On the other hand, Italy seems to be the ultimate overachiever, at least this year. In the first WBC, Italy won one game in pool play before going home. They repeated that performance with just a lone upset win over Canada in 2009. Which is a good and fine story. If it helps baseball become a big thing in Italy, that’s good. I don’t know how much the Italian media cares, though, if nothing else because there aren’t that many Italians on the team. By my count, there are seven players born in Italy on team. 18 players are from the US, and then one each from Brazil, Canada, and Venezuela. So, basically, this team is about as Italian as Olive Garden. So is this run really all that unexpected?
Yes and no. I mean, this is obviously a much better showing than a team of purely Italian born players would do. There is no questioning that. So, in that sense, no. But, even with the American players, there is a distinct lack of star power on this team. The only player on their roster I would really go out of my way to get is Anthony Rizzo, who is probably the best thing to happen to the Cubs since 2008. Nick Punto is only other player who I would really take note of, and I believe I’ve written here before his distinct lack of hitting ability. I guess I should admire Punto, in a way. If I would have gone on to a career of playing baseball, I would likely be very similar to Punto. In any case, those guys were born in Florida and California, respectively.
So, how did this roster get built? This is straight from the WBC site.
So, basically, if you’re a citizen, one or your parents are a citizen, or if the WBC says it’s cool. That last bullet seems to say you have to at least qualify for an Italian passport even if you haven’t sought one. But there is that little clause there: “presents documentary evidence satisfactory to the WBCI.” It seems pretty clear that the organization that runs the WBC is not going to hold people quite to the same standard of citizenship that an actual government agency would. I’m sure there’s documentation somewhere that “proves” all these guys could be Italian or have Italian parents if they wanted to be seen that way. I would be curious to see how far some of these justifications stretch.
Is that a problem, though? Probably not. Again, the main aim of this tournament is to grow the game in places it hasn’t traditionally had a foothold in. Like Italy or the European Netherlands. The success of these teams can only help that cause, whether the players are honest-to-God Italian or from Evansville. When we watch the World Cup, do you really care where the American players come from? Or does it just matter that they wear USA on their chest? Chances are, it’s the latter. That’s likely just as true in Italy as it is here. Every blue jersey I see right now says Italia on it, no matter what their birth certificate says.
The only potential harm I see is if Team Italy steals the spotlight from more “deserving” teams. If a team of carpetbaggers* with spurious claims of being Italian knocks out a traditional power like the big three mentioned above, it could be a big hit to the credibility of the tournament. And if the competition isn’t seen as legit, you will never build interest in your stronghold countries, which means fan support and TV money will dry up, which means no more tournament and no building a “real” Italian team.
*There are maybe some derogatory connotations that come with that word, but it’s the best I could come up with.
Think of it like wrestling. For ages, professional wrestling had to appear real and breaking kayfabe was a mortal sin. The competition had to be seen as legit and credible to get anywhere. But, as the 80’s and 90’s wore on and it became clear that wrestling’s fanbase was established and not going anywhere, that all the fans with money were smarks, it ceased to matter if the competition was legit. The interest was cemented, so kayfabe went away, or at least greatly diminished.
If you want a more “sporty” example, you can look at the NCAA tournament. If little schools like Butler and VCU and George Mason won all the time, it wouldn’t seem we were getting a true result, and interest would fade. Instead, schools like that making deep runs were and are far more the exception than the rule, which makes those small schools feel legit or incredibly lucky when they do make a run, rather than forced to succeed by the NCAA.
So, essentially, good on you, Italy. Keep on winning. But not too much, not until you have a bit more Italian spoken in the dugout, capisce?