Athletic drama regular-season action simply can’t replicate. Emotions so charged, the winners were as liable to cry as the losers. The selflessness required to compete for what’s named on the front of a player’s jersey, instead of for whatever name is on the back of it.
The 2017 version of March Madness provided all that and more, as natural rivalries were rekindled before fans with painted faces. Teams came out of nowhere to produce the feel-good stories associated with upsets and yet, when the smoke cleared, talent and depth proved to be a more potent combination than passion and effort.
Nothing in sports compares with March Madness, and you don’t need to follow college basketball to appreciate it.
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This year, the month’s prevailing of madness pertained to the World Baseball Classic.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of the tournament, I bemoaned how the WBC had failed to gain traction since its 2006 debut. Implemented as baseball’s answer to soccer’s World Cup, the WBC was seen as a chance to showcase the sport, every four years, for an international audience.
It hadn’t happened. While Latin and Asian players appeared to be all in, the Americans regarded the WBC merely as an alternative to participating in the laborious split-squad games of spring training.
I figured 2017 would be the last hurrah of a tournament whose creators had sound intentions, but next to no understanding about the pitfalls of putting a pitcher into a high-stress situation seven months before the ultimate high-stress situation.
I was mistaken. The WBC is here to stay. It’s here to stay not just because most of the games in the one-and-done knockout round were riveting. It’s here to stay because the tournament enables television viewers in the U.S. — specifically, young television viewers in the U.S. — to know that baseball isn’t always stodgy and tedious.
American baseball culture, for instance, insists that dugout-clearing celebrations following home runs can only be held if the homer wins a game. The other night, players from the Netherlands swarmed home plate to congratulate Wladimir Balentien for a two-run shot that gave them a lead over Puerto Rico...in the top of the first inning.
Upon connecting, Balentien flipped his bat and beat his chest, displaying the kind of exuberance that usually merits some retaliatory chin music in the States. Come to think of it, it merited some retaliatory chin music donated by the Mariners’ Edwin Diaz, serving as Puerto Rico’s closer.
Diaz threw a 10th-inning fastball up and in on Balentien, provoking a different dugout-clearing incident.
“I know it was not on purpose,” said Balentien, a former Seattle prospect who has found his pro baseball niche as a slugger in Japan. “It’s part of the game. You know both teams want to win, so it’s things that happen when you play hard and put your heart in everything.”
Many of the players on Latin American teams think of the WBC as the real World Series, and that’s not an overstatement.
“Probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Dodgers utility man Enrique Hernandez told reporters of his WBC experience with Puerto Rico. “To be able to wear your country on the front of your chest, it could get heavy at times. But it’s a pretty special feeling.”
Even the Americans, groomed to play baseball with a low-key solemnity, found their pulses racing in the WBC. After beating Puerto Rico in the Wednesday night final, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones noted how he and his teammates were motivated by their opponents’ apparent assumption of victory.
Seems some T-shirts were in boxes, prematurely proclaiming Puerto Rico as world champs. (It’s standard procedure. Championship T-shirts, caps and hoodies are manufactured ahead of time.) Seems, too, that plans were in place for a parade in San Juan celebrating Puerto Rico’s WBC accomplishments. (That’s also standard procedure. Closing the major thoroughfares of a metropolitan city can’t be done at the last minute.)
Jones’ implication that a U.S. defeat was taken for granted has not endeared him to Puerto Rican catcher Yadier Molina.
“He really has to get informed, because he shouldn’t have said those comments, let alone in public, mocking the way preparations were made,” Molina told ESPN. “He has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people.”
Definition of a successful international sporting event: When a star player on the losing team demands an apology from a star player on the winning team.
A world baseball tournament in March isn’t an ideal format, and it put the Mariners in a tough spot: Either allow Diaz to close the championship game after working two innings in the semifinal, or ordering him to be shut down, potentially alienating a key cog of the future from the Seattle front office.
General manager Jerry Dipoto made the right call — he gave the M’s closer the OK to pitch — and had to be thrilled when the Americans took the 8-0 lead that rendered Diaz unnecessary.
There’s still some pitch-count limits and tiebreaker formula tweaks to be worked out, but the WBC is here to stay, with the next installment set for 2021.
March Madness, at its best.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath