Well, the temperature is creeping up to the single-digit negatives here on the island of Montreal and the McGill ghetto is spawning legions of fools in shorts. The cross-country skiers on Mont Royal are again dodging the dirty hippies banging their drums, and the winter layer of armour has come off the Styrofoam swordsmen. This can only mean one thing: baseball season will soon be upon us.
Compared to the rest of the world, Montreal ball fans have less cause to rejoice-we're heading into Year Two of the post-Expos era-and now that Quebec's last hope, Eric Gagné (that's Gahn-yay to you) decided not to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, which wraps up on March 20, our baseball fans have only one reason to bother paying attention to the return of fungo-hitting and fly-shagging (no, not that kind); to watch the Marlins lose.
My baseball allegiances are to Canada's only remaining team, the free-spending Blue Jays (or maybe it's just "the Jays" now), but I am an admitted casualty of the 1994-95 strike. Maybe it was just my age, but that summer sans ball killed any real fanaticism I had. I still roughly follow the game but I don't know the players' names any more and it seems that the Jays' season always comes down to "too little, too late." I've lost interest.
Perhaps in an attempt to woo former fans such as myself, MLB has joined forces with other baseball leagues around the world to create the World Baseball Classic, a sort of World Cup of the diamond. Indicative of either how good the Blue Jays used to be or how old I am, I was pleased to see that the managers of the Canadian and American teams were, respectively, Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez. Whitt has been a staple in Canadian baseball since 1977, playing almost his entire career in Toronto, working in the farm system with the Sainte-Catherine's Stompers, and now employed again with the Jays as bench coach.
While I thoroughly enjoy former Jays catcher and manager Buck Martinez, surely there was a better candidate to manage the American all-star team. How about Joe Torre? He was born in Brooklyn and he manages the Yankees. You can't get much more American than that.
With teams from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Japan, the best baseball-playing nations are surely represented. And, just to make sure the fans get their fill of their favourite team, there's cannon fodder-Australia, China, the Netherlands, Italy (led by Pennsylvania-born Mike Piazza, but anyway ...) and South Africa are all expected to be pushovers, though they may provide some upset drama.
There is even a bit of controversy (but not too much, of course, as this is supposed to be a feel-good event) involving-what else?-politics. The Cuban team was a controversial selection to the tournament. The Bush administration objected to Cuba's inclusion in the WBC. In the end they relented under the caveat that, no matter what the result, the Cuban team cannot share in the revenues from the tourney. The MLB, the Japanese baseball league, other professional leagues and the national federations all get a cut of the take, depending on how their teams do. The only thing the Cuban players get is the chance to defect. WBC promotional material states that the purpose of the Classic is to "share the universal joy of the game, to unite us in our differences." Right.
So far, this is not winning me back. In case anyone hasn't noticed, baseball is already in better shape in South and Central America and Japan than it is in the United States-baseball is a religion in those regions, while North America is still suffering from the strike hangover. The real goal is to make money and to have the United States win. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are all on the same side of the tournament, while the US gets to fight its way through Canada and Japan. The US does not have an easy road, but it looks pretty soft compared to the other two pools.
It would be nice to see the US team taken down a peg, hopefully by the underpaid Cubans, who play for "the love of their country" (as in, "you better win or Fidel will be pissed"). A USA-Cuba showdown would be a little like the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series-the evil empire vs. ... the other evil empire. Cool. Or, better yet, maybe Canada will beat the USA-that's always nice.
In the end, though, it is the games themselves that must win me over. There is something about baseball-despite the bloated players and their bloated salaries-that is just so relaxing. If the WBC was smart, it would market itself like the slow food craze-nice and easy. There's nothing quite like sitting in the sun (or on the grass, preferably) watching a ball game. There is no need for light shows, fireworks, retractable roofs or cheerleaders; just a calm voice announcing the next batter and the line score after each inning. After the game, you can walk home-it's dark but still warm-and, like the dirt settling on the infield, you can then settle into bed, satisfied at the symmetry of it all.
John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.