Eric Nusbaum

Celebrating the WBC, Baseball's Cultural Exchange Program

The World Baseball Classic was hardly a perfect tournament. But at its best, the WBC was a showcase for baseball, and baseball fandom, at its best and most diverse.

Mar 23 2017, 8:44pm

Eric Nusbaum

John Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico, but moved to Brooklyn with his family when he was just a year old. I met him in a crowd of fans cheering on the Puerto Rican team during batting practice before Wednesday night's World Baseball Classic final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. He was wearing a hat that read "Borniquen 508"—the name of his American Legion post, which serves primarily Puerto Rican military veterans in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina—and a Puerto Rico basketball jersey stretched out over a hooded sweatshirt.

"You'd be surprised at how uncomplicated it was for Puerto Ricans to give their lives for this country," Figueroa told me.

Figueroa is a Marine vet, and served in 13 months in Vietnam. He has a thick, mostly gray beard, and is turning 70 in June. His real name is actually Juan Bautista Figueroa. He was born on June 24, which is John the Baptist's saint day—the reason why his parents gave him John the Baptist's name. His father died when he was just a kid

"You know that song En Mi Viejo San Juan? He sang that every night. He never got the chance to go back. He died in New York City."

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Figueroa didn't go back to the island himself until he was retired. But he was at Monday night's game against the Dominican Republic, too. He even stayed late partying with his fellow fans on the stadium concourse until security "escorted" them out of the building at 11:30.

The 2017 World Baseball Classic wasn't a perfect tournament, neither in conception nor its execution by organizers. The games were on television too late for East Coast viewers, and were barely promoted in local American markets for fans who might have wanted to attend. Team Mexico got screwed—if not in a rules sense, then in a basic fairness sense—and the extra innings rule is dumb.

And yet the baseball was great, and the atmosphere surrounding the games was even better. The WBC, at its best, is not a contest to determine the world's best national team, nor a showcase for international talent. It's a baseball cultural exchange program. A place for fans to feel the vibes of fans from other places, and for contrasting mores and styles to be celebrated, free from some of the the more oppressive written and unwritten rules that govern the long and grinding Major League Baseball season.

In the early innings of the championship game, I found myself sitting in the all-you-can-eat right field bleachers behind a pair of dudes wearing Sailor Jerry-branded stars and stripes cowboy hats and American flag blazers. It turns out they were Marines as well—Afghanistan vets who drove up to the game from Camp Pendleton, about two hours down the coast. They had bought the outfits after their deployment, and this was just the second time they'd gotten to wear them. (The night before, at a bar, was the first.)

When I approached them, I was expecting something rowdier—and less sincere—than what I heard from Ryan, who was sitting on the aisle. He said the WBC was a "thousand times better" than a MLB game. For that, he credited the energy of fans from Latin American countries. (He'd also been to the USA-DR game at Petco Park, sans costume.)

"It's awesome," he said. "I wish all the games were like this. Way more exciting." He pointed to the crowd. "It makes it better. It's like a World Cup, soccer."

Marcus Stroman could have pitched for Puerto Rico. Instead he threw a gem for Team USA. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports.

He added that more kids in the United States would probably play baseball if it was always this exuberant. I was sitting behind Ryan when Ian Kinsler homered, to give Team USA a 2-0 lead in the third inning. Kinsler had been the subject of scrutiny before the game for comments he made contrasting the styles of the American team with the Dominican and Puerto Rican squads.

Kinsler later clarified those comments in an interview with ESPN. "You should play the way you want, and the way you feel will put you in the best position to win—the way you feel the best and perform the best," Kinsler said. "Everybody is different."

But for all the pre and postgame talk about and expressiveness and the proper or improper ways to behave while playing baseball, "USA USA" chants filled the stadium. Flags were waved. Baseball was enjoyed. American fans on hand were not bashful about showing their emotion.

Neither was the Puerto Rican media, which arrived, in large part, blonde. Before the game, reporters with their hair bleached watched warmups and batting practice from behind a velvet rope, their phones pointed out at the field, capturing and broadcasting every minor detail on Facebook Live. The sparkling trim on Francisco Lindor's glove. The way Carlos Delgado, coaching, still towers over everyone around him. One guy went through what seemed like every single player on the Puerto Rico roster while they were just playing catch, announcing their names to his followers back home like he was introducing cousins.

His excitement—and the fact that there was an enthusiastic audience ready to lap up a Facebook broadcast of, literally, Ángel Pagán playing catch—was a testament to the quality of the tournament, and what it can mean. Puerto Rico's undefeated run leading into Wednesday night was, in the way that sports can be, magical. The country has run out of blonde hair dye. The Puerto Rican population in Southern California is small and scattered. The country itself in the middle of what a few different people I spoke to referred to as a "tough moment" socially and economically. But on this night, Puerto Rico was well-represented. They wore home whites, and felt like a home team.

I met a pair of Puerto Rican women named Joán and Ailene who had moved to Las Vegas years ago. They drove in for the game. "The people are united," said Joán, who is a card dealer. "This is the only thing anybody is talking about. It's tremendous. Puerto Rico has always been a place where people did crazy things to get attention," she said referring to the blonde hair. "And thank God, it's helped us. We're united. It's tremendous."

In the small pocket of time between the national anthems and the first pitch, I ran into a man standing alone wearing a backpack and blue jeans on the lodge level concourse. He was looking out onto the field from behind home plate, sort of harried, sort of pensive. It was Alex Cora, the former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman and general manager of the Puerto Rican team, taking a quiet moment for himself before the madness began.

I asked him how this compared to the atmosphere at Chavez Ravine when he was playing for the Dodgers.

"It's different," he said. "For me, personally it's very gratifying see all the Puerto Rico fans taking over Dodger Stadium. It's something you dream of, that you never thought was gonna be a reality, but now it's kind of like, 'wow, it's crazy'."

He said he was mainly just proud of what the team had accomplished. To American fans, the stakes of the WBC can seem very abstract. After all, it's in some ways a silly tournament: round-robin play and single elimination do not necessarily carry weight in a sport where a lengthy regular season is defined by the gradual revelation of marginal differences in skill between teams. However, the WBC's format also allows for a certain kind of magic and momentum to take hold, as it often does during the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and as it did for Puerto Rico going into the final.

"We have accomplished a lot of things socially," Cora said, referring to the way the island had unified behind the team. "Obviously winning the whole thing is the icing on the cake."

Puerto Rico, of course, didn't win the whole thing. They ran up against Marcus Stroman, the Team USA pitcher whose mother is Puerto Rican and who was criticized on social media for choosing to pitch for the Americans after saying in 2013 that he looked forward to suiting up for the Puerto Rican team.

Stroman was born in Medford, New York. His pitching counterpart for Puerto Rico, Seth Lugo, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. The USA-Puerto Rico final was not just a matchup between two baseball teams, or between a country and one of its territories. It was a sort of athletic diorama of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, and the complicated relationship between two places that are deeply intertwined, for better or worse. At Wednesday's final, I saw Team USA fans wearing Derek Jeter jerseys, and I saw Team Puerto Rico fans wearing Derek Jeter jerseys.

After Stroman's no-hit bid ended, and he was removed by manager Jim Leyland to a standing ovation from fans of both teams, the energy died down in the ballpark for the final innings. The game felt over. The tournament felt over. However, in the ninth inning as Puerto Rico made their final, futile, attempt at a comeback, their fans congregated in the field level section behind their dugout.

Musical instruments were removed one final time from their cases: drums, trombones, airhorns, anything that would make noise. The aisles filled up. An usher shrugged his shoulders. "They don't pay me enough for this," he told me. After the final out, the Puerto Rico fans serenaded their team with La Borinqueña, the national anthem.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, escorted by what seemed like a dozen security guards in dark suits, made his way down to the field. A stage was assembled along the visiting first base dugout. Team USA—a collection of All Stars who have been unfairly defined by the players who chose not to play with them—celebrated with their bald eagle statue on the mound. They ran a victory lap around the stadium with the American flag.

One Puerto Rico fan, his hair bleached, held up a banner that said "100x35≠51."

His name was Jan. He was with a friend, Diani, whom he had traveled with from San Juan to Guadalajara to San Diego to Los Angeles, following the team as it progressed through the tournament. Another friend, Marysol, who lives in L.A., had joined them. "This is the first Puerto Rican thing I've done since I lived here," Marysol said.

As the stadium emptied, they explained that 100x35 miles are the dimensions of Puerto Rico. From there, the rest of the sign is self-explanatory: ≠51 means no statehood. 100x35≠51. The United States, they said, was a colonizer who took more from the island than it gave. It was time for Puerto Rican independence.

A Puerto Rican-American named Jonuel who lives in Ponciana, Florida, in the central part of the state, listened intently. He had family serving in the American military and was less sure about the idea of independence. But he was Puerto Rican first, he said, quoting a famous poem. "Yo sería borincano aunque naciera en la luna." I'd be Puerto Rican even if I was born on the moon. Jonuel booked his ticket to L.A. on Monday night after the Puerto Ricans beat the Netherlands.

On the field, the Puerto Rican team tipped its caps to the American team. Players hugged, shook hands. Savored the final moments before they would be shipped back to their spring training facilities.

Eventually, we were escorted up out of the seats and onto the concourse by an usher. As we walked out, I thought about something John Figueroa, the Puerto Rican-American Vietnam vet, had said before the game started.

"I'm proud of being both," he told me. "American and Puerto Rican. You can put either one ahead of the other."

"So you wouldn't be upset if Puerto Rico loses?"

He hesitated. He wasn't willing to go that far.