SAN FRANCISCO — All things being equal …
Sorry, but, all things being equal, that is one of the most misleading phrases in the English language. All things are never equal. There always are advantages and disadvantages in life, and the best any of us can do is deal with them.
In the case of the World Baseball Classic, the edge does not go to the team with the better hitters and the better pitchers. It goes to the teams with the most national pride, the most passion to perform in front of a world audience.
That's why Japan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands are at AT&T Park for the WBC's version of the Final Four. And why Team USA players are back with their big league teams, preparing for the 162-game season. It demands so much. They aren't allowed to approach this event the way they will games in May and June, let alone September and October.
Alex Rios and Puerto Rico are all in. They started a joy ride at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan two weeks ago, and used Rios' two-run homer to continue it Sunday night. It fueled a 3-1 victory over two-time defending champ Japan, putting Puerto Rico into the final against the Netherlands-Dominican Republic winner.
Maybe one day the United States will win this event. But not as long as the WBC retains the second-class status it holds among big league front offices and with most American fans, whose only concern is that players from their favorite teams return to camp healthy.
That's the not the way it is around the world, where the WBC is seen as a rare opportunity for true nationalism.
There were real tears of joy in the eyes of some Puerto Rican players after they eliminated the United States on Friday night in Miami. And there was nothing phony about the delight that Dutch players took in ousting Cuba at the Tokyo Dome or all that fist-pumping and dancing done by the unbeaten Dominican team at Marlins Park.
This event means the world to everyone, it seems, except the host country.
Like Buck Martinez and Davey Johnson before him, Joe Torre had his hands tied behind his back during the United States' 3-3 run, one that pushed its all-time record to 10-10. He was limited by the strict usage guidelines he was given from the teams that loaned him their players during spring training, and while you can't fairly criticize the performance of players, they can't help but notice this isn't a life-and-death approach like it is for other teams.
One common denominator in the U.S. run was the number of times unknown minor leaguers and seemingly over-the-hill players matched up well with big league All-Stars. Consider the starting pitching.
Torre would have loved to have had Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and David Price in his rotation but was satisfied to start R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Gio Gonzalez. Those guys compiled a respectable 3.45 earned-run average over 282/3 innings. Not bad, but not as good as the 2.19 ERA that Nelson Figueroa, Samuel Deduno, Mario Santiago, Jameson Taillon, Luca Panerati and Yovani Gallardo compiled against the U.S.
Yes, that Luca Panerati.
There's randomness about results in baseball that makes it silly to draw too many conclusions, especially when you're drawing them for an event that lasts three weeks with games in two continents. But the storyline in the 2013 WBC has been well-prepared, highly motivated players coming through for their countries against players with bigger names.
"Everybody played their heart out and gave everything they had," U.S. catcher Jonathan Lucroy said Sunday, back in camp with the Brewers. "It was unbelievable — I've never felt any kind of energy like that ever."
WBC baseball is as compelling as what is played in most Octobers, but that's not true for Team USA, not with the pitching scripted and playing time guaranteed for everyone.
It's no knock against the players, not the ones who play anyway. But it's a losing approach.
If you're going to play in an event, you want your best chance to win. The U.S. team wouldn't mind winning, but it's not a priority, and that's no way to play on the world stage, even if you do start with the deepest pool of talent.