SAN DIEGO — Carlos Beltran is a statesmanlike figure among Puerto Rican ballplayers. Nearly 40, he has long felt a responsibility to give back — be it through the baseball academy he founded at home, his advocacy for Spanish-language interpreters in each clubhouse or dispensing advice to young prospects forging a career in baseball.
But when the Puerto Rican players began dyeing their hair blond during the World Baseball Classic, well, it was a lot to ask of the button-down Beltran.
“They look at me, as the veteran guy, like, ‘What are you going to do?’” Beltran said. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to dye my hair.’”
The next day, Beltran showed up with his beard dyed blond.
“They were excited,” he said, smiling.
This year’s W.B.C. has thus far proved to be an inspiring tournament, with thrilling games, passionate players and boisterous fans showing off the best the sport has to offer on stages as diverse as Tokyo; Miami; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Seoul, South Korea. To boot, there have also been plenty of totems — platinum hair, a golden plátano and a Mensch on a Bench.
As Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, searches for ways to engage younger fans by trying to speed up games — allowing an intentional walk with a signal rather than four wide pitches, for example — a more enduring solution seems to be in plain sight.
Why not just make the game more like the W.B.C.?
The latest night of compelling baseball played out Tuesday in Puerto Rico’s 3-1 win over the defending champion Dominican Republic, which kicked off the second round at Petco Park, where the United States and Venezuela will also compete to see which teams advance to the semifinals along with Japan and the Netherlands next week at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Though the crowd, at 16,637, was modest, it filled the ballpark with energy. The spark went from the first inning, which ended in a chest-bumping celebration after Puerto Rico right fielder Eddie Rosario rifled a throw that cut down the Dominican Republic’s Jean Segura at the plate, to the final out, when the Puerto Ricans poured out of the dugout after Segura took a called third strike thrown by Edwin Diaz.
Attendance through the first round of the tournament rose 34 percent from 2013, the last time it was played. Japan has averaged more than 40,000 for its six home games, and a capacity crowd of 37,446 — the largest in Marlins Park history — turned out for the Dominican Republic’s 7-5 win over the United States last week. The rematch here on Saturday night, which could be for a berth in the semifinals, is close to a sellout.
The ambience on Tuesday, as has been the case throughout the tournament, barely resembled a major league game, where beer gardens, flashing scoreboards, cacophonous sound systems and ritual recordings of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” seem required to capture the attention of fans because the game cannot.
It is a largely manufactured environment.
But at Petco Park, it was not. The fans were mostly segregated — Dominicans along the third-base line and Puerto Ricans on the first-base side — and the vibrant atmosphere was organic. Fans waved flags and broke into chants without being prompted by commands on the scoreboard. There was scant canned music and, from the Puerto Ricans fans, more cowbell.
On the field, no bat flips took place, but there was no absence of exuberance.
When Yadier Molina swiped the tag on Segura to end the first — allowing Puerto Rico to escape a bases-loaded, none-out fix — he animatedly signaled out before the home plate umpire, Will Little. While Molina circled the bases after a sixth-inning solo home run, shortstop Francisco Lindor did jumping jacks near home plate. And when third baseman Carlos Correa, Lindor and second baseman Javier Baez whipped the ball around the horn after a strikeout, it was with the sort of flamboyance that would have clearly flouted some unwritten rule of the American game.
(In a reminder that the game was not being played for giggles, the Dominican manager, Tony Pena — taking leave from his job as the Yankees’ first-base coach — earned a neck-vein-popping ejection in the eighth after having had his fill of Little’s strike zone.)
But the most audacious display of assuredness came from Baez, the energetic and versatile Chicago Cubs infielder known for his wizardly glove work. Even before he slapped a no-look tag on Nelson Cruz to foil a stolen base attempt to end the eighth, Baez pointed to Molina, congratulating him on the throw.
Later, Baez said he did not realize what he had done until afterward.
“As soon as we got back in the locker room, everybody started showing me videos, and I was like, ‘All right, I can’t help it,’” Baez said.
Puerto Rico outfielder Enrique Hernandez said it was no secret why Baez — a member of a Cubs team that has bigger stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — is a crowd favorite at Wrigley Field. Or why Venezuela’s Rougned Odor is so popular with Texas Rangers fans, or why Hernandez’s teammate with the Dodgers — the Cuban Yasiel Puig — energizes crowds in Los Angeles.
“In L.A., everybody loves Puig, and he’s as loud as they get when it comes to playing the game,” said Hernandez, who grew up modeling himself on the more circumspect Derek Jeter, in large part because his godfather is the former Yankee Jorge Posada’s father.
Hernandez continued: “A lot of people get bothered — they call it flair or something — but we’re passionate about the game. We love it so much, that’s how we show it. Fans love that; fans embrace that part of the game. I wanted to play the game like Jeter, but I’m not saying pimping a homer is necessarily disrespecting the game. I don’t think there’s really a wrong way. When you’re a little kid, everybody tells you to enjoy the game and have fun, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Puerto Rico is not alone in this tournament. Israel, a ragtag outfit of mostly minor leaguers, won its first four games accompanied by its good-luck doll, known as Mensch on a Bench. The Dominicans, with an all-star lineup, have been fueled by plátano power. Pitcher Fernando Rodney carries a golden plátano, or plantain, an ode to a staple of the Caribbean diet.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Ricans have been platinum-tinged.
The movement grew, so to speak, when Baez dyed his hair over the winter and sent a photo to his Puerto Rican teammates. Molina suggested they join him. Some, like Mets catcher Rene Rivera, added tint during spring training. The trend gathered momentum during the first round in Mexico when Beltran showed up with a golden beard.
“When the oldest guy in the clubhouse does it,” Correa said, “everybody has to do it.”
And so everybody has, a point that Molina, the team leader, seemed to be making as he ran the bases after his homer. His teammates emptied the dugout to greet him, and Molina flipped off his helmet as he crossed home plate. Then he reached up and tousled his new head of blond hair. It had to feel like fun.
This article was sourced from http://forumsnews.info