San Francisco's AT&T Park hosts the final three games of the World Baseball Classic beginning on Sunday, March 17.
The WBC is Major League Baseball's effort to promote America’s pastime as a sport around the world. Last September, 28 teams entered the qualifying rounds of the World Baseball Classic, and the final round will feature just four: the Dominican Republic, Japan, the Netherlands, and the winner of Friday night's game between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Japan won both previous rounds of the WBC in 2006 and 2009. The Dominican Republic is well-known as a baseball powerhouse. But the Netherlands has taken the baseball world by surprise. It's their first trip to the final round, after they came from behind to beat the Cuban national team last Monday night. Now the Oranj, as they're known, have become the lovable underdogs of the WBC. The Dutch word for baseball, honkbal, is a trending topic on Twitter whenever the team is playing.
Ian Miller of Oakland Tweets and records podcasts about baseball as part of the team Productive Outs, and he's also a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, where he wrote about his conversion to the cult of honkbal.
"Initially it was just how comical [the word] honkbal was," Miller said. "What they did was just literally translate English-language baseball terms into Dutch. Honkbal literally means baseball. They have things like tweede honkman, which is second baseman, kortestop, shortstop, and werper is pitcher. I can't root for the favorite. I have to root for the underdog, and that has a lot to do with why I threw my lot in with the Dutch. And I needed to throw my lot in with a team, so why not pick these guys who were making me laugh?"
But the team is seriously talented, starting with their manager, Hensley Meulens, who's the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants. Miller said for him, Meulens was another reason to root for the Netherlands.
"I've had the chance to talk with him before, and he's incredibly knowledgeable -- one of the nicest guys in baseball," Miller said. "I stood on the top step of the dugout and talked to him one day, and I learned more than I did when I played baseball in high school. If you see him in the dugout during a game, he's always composed, always looks cool. You just feel like he's got everything under control."
KQED listeners who told us they were going to the World Baseball Classic had a variety of reasons. JT Neville is an IT manager from Redwood City. He found out about the WBC as a Giants season-ticket holder, and hoped to see some Giants or other MLB players in the tournament.
"It's just exciting to see the guys who you see on a regular basis out there in different jerseys," Neville said.
Some fans worry that major leaguers on WBC teams will be pushing too hard and risking injuries before their season begins. Neville said he understood that argument.
"When you saw [San Francisco closer Sergio] Romo put in 24 pitches for Mexico, and he'd only been throwing for a couple of weeks, that was a little scary, considering how critical he was to the Giants last year," Neville said. "I don't know if it's any more risk than going through spring training, but it could be scary."
Los Angeles native Nick Gonzalez is flying back from New York City, where he lives now, in order to go to the WBC games with friends in the Bay Area.
"It puts baseball on the world stage, after it's not going to be in the Olympics any more," Gonzalez said. "I think more and more, we're going to see players come to the U.S. from countries that haven't been traditional baseball countries -- places like Australia or Italy. China has a pretty good team; Brazil has a pretty good team -- a lot of places have developed a taste for America's pastime."
For Ian Miller, the opportunity to observe different styles of play and approaches to the game are worth the price of admission.
"Getting a chance to see these guys -- especially the Cuban national team, who we don't usually get a chance to see -- it's absolutely fascinating," Miller said. "Watching how the Japanese guys flip their bats -- something you'd never see in major league baseball, because the pitcher would take that as being shown up. And then there was the Korean manager who came out, after their defeat by Holland, and said this was one of the worst events in our history, and he went on to apologize to the Korean people for the worst game ever. If folks aren't watching the WBC, this is the kind of subtle and fascinating stuff they're missing out on."
The World Baseball Classic games are Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. (Japan vs. the lower seed of the two American teams); Monday, March 18 at 6 p.m. (The Netherlands vs. the higher seed), and Tuesday, March 19 at 5 p.m. (the winners of Sunday's and Monday's games).