Japan, South Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have all played for the title before the United States has.
When the United States plays Puerto Rico in the championship Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, the coronation may have to wait. Puerto Rico’s blond hair and over-the-top celebrations are the accouterments of an ironclad determination to bring a brief salve to a place that is coping with economic strife.
Puerto Rico, which lost to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 championship game, may not beat the United States, but it is unlikely to be cowed. Puerto Rico eliminated the United States in the second round in 2013 and hung on for a 6-5 victory last week in San Diego.
There is also little doubt that Puerto Rico has been the best team in the tournament so far, winning all seven games, including a 4-3 victory over the Netherlands in 11 innings that showcased its sublime defense and joie de vivre about the game.
“We’re going through tough times as a country,” said Carlos Beltran, the designated hitter who has played in all four tournaments for Puerto Rico. “The fact that we’re uniting our people, everybody’s rooting for us and we’re playing such good baseball — hopefully we can finish this in a positive way.”
The same could be said for the tournament, which began in 2006 as an attempt by Major League Baseball to manufacture a World Cup-like event for the sport after it had been dropped from the Olympics. It is now played every four years.
Tournament attendance leading to the semifinals had increased by 24 percent, and Tuesday’s night semifinal drew a peak audience of 1.7 million on MLB Network, making it by far the network’s most watched nonplayoff game. Overall viewership for the W.B.C. is up by 21 percent over 2013.
More eye-catching, though, has been the atmosphere at the ballparks. Dominican fans took over Marlins Park in Miami, creating an earsplitting din that carried their team to a dramatic comeback win over the United States. Crowds in Seoul, Tokyo and Guadalajara, Mexico, were bouncing when the home team played. Even when ballparks have not been full, as in San Diego and Los Angeles, they have been full of life.
Japanese fans’ robust band, with its drums and horns, lent an air of “Friday Night Lights” to Dodger Stadium. And if Los Angeles fans are often impugned as fair-weathered, it is worth noting that virtually all of the 33,462 people who were there on Tuesday night sat through a persistent drizzle most of the game, with American fans making their presence felt with “U-S-A” chants.
“I’ve played in a lot of playoff games, and I think this is better,” said reliever Pat Neshek, who retired the Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh on a fly ball with two runners aboard to end the eighth inning. “Of course, it’s March, which is crazy. You’re trying to get ready for the season.”
What remains to be seen is how far this coming around to the W.B.C. will extend. If the United States players often make a point of saying how proud they are to play for the country — one that has been eloquently made by Adam Jones, whose father and brother have served in the military — they have also had a couple of sore spots repeatedly exposed.
One is how many marquee players, such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner, have declined to participate. The other is how staid and emotionally calibrated the Americans often seem in contrast to the bat-flipping, chest-thumping, flag-waving players from — well, pretty much every other team in the tournament.
“I hope kids watching the W.B.C. can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler said. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”
Those differences will be on display on a broad stage on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, where a study in contrasts awaits between a team that has been the life of the party — and one that is arriving late to it.
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