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Mudville: February 26, 2024 4:19 am PDT

Passion Play

BY KEVIN KERNAN

The best thing about the WBC is the passion.

This is not Nerd Ball. This is baseball.

It’s why we all love the game. The WBC players have passion for the game – the WBC fans have passion for the game. MLB could learn from its money-making spring training cousin.

“Other countries are becoming more baseball countries than we are,’’ one longtime talent evaluator told BallNine.

That says it all.

In Japan, 48 percent of the households were tuned into Japan’s 9-3 win over Italy; a larger percentage of households than watched Super Bowl LVII this year in the U.S. The overall attendance at the first round was 1,010,999, a 98 percent increase over the attendance in 2017. With numbers like these, these games are not meaningless.

“Look at the passion in Asia,’’ the evaluator said. “Look at the passion in Latin America. They still love this game the way the fans in America once loved the game. They don’t sit and look at their phones. They cheer. They play drums and bugles and whistles, there is a lot of energy in those ballparks. It’s like being in the Caribbean Series.’’

I’ve covered two WBC tournaments and loved being there.

Rob Dibble and I were talking about the passion of the WBC games last week – and Nasty Boy Dibble knows all about baseball passion – and we both agreed that is why we love the WBC.

With Mets closer Edwin Diaz being lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in a post-game celebration after Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic, the WBC was put to the test.

Team USA superstar Mike Trout, who isn’t one to show emotion, said his WBC experience has been a blast. “This is the (most fun) experience I’ve had in baseball, to represent your country.’’

Team USA pulled off a thrilling, come-from-behind victory over Venezuela Saturday night, 9-7, on a Trea Turner grand slam, to advance.

On the injury front, Venezuela’s Jose Altuve may have suffered a broken thumb after being hit by a pitch earlier in the game.

Mets fans, understandably so, were devastated by the injury to Edwin Diaz; but that is no reason to put an end to the World Baseball Classic or to not admire the passion play that is the WBC. And as I said, follow the money – this is too much of a money maker for MLB to cast the WBC aside. And don’t forget regular season series in other countries. New fans. New dollars.

The WBC is one of the few good ideas MLB has stumbled across in recent memory and Diaz’ injury is no reason to get down and out on the WBC. Life and injuries happen.

Now, I will say this (and I have been saying this for a while), players need to be a little more cognizant of putting themselves in harm’s way with some of the celebrations that have taken place the last couple years in and around Major League Baseball; not just in the WBC.

You can’t run into the catcher anymore but you sure can run yourself into danger during a celebration.

The tearing off of the jersey and running around and pounding of that night’s walk-off hero needs to be toned down quite a bit. Save it for Game 7 of the World Series, fellas.

That’s how important these WBC games are to the players and the pride they feel representing their country; and as Lindor noted, “It is the dream of every Puerto Rican ballplayer to wear Puerto Rico’s colors and to represent our country.”

Celebrate a win in substance, not high-flying style. Remember when Cody Bellinger dislocated his shoulder in the NLCS while celebrating? Enough with the TikTok video celebrations. Enough with the group jumping up and down in unison with the pitcher. Fist pump all you want. But don’t do anything that’s going to get you hurt. Protect your career. That was an unfortunate accident with Diaz. Players need to learn from that. Put up a stop sign after the final out on the mound on those types of celebrations.

I feel sorry for Diaz. He’s a great teammate. I feel sorry for his brother, who was in tears after the injury.

To be clear, when I say “passion” I am not talking about the passion of celebration. I’m talking about the passion of playing the game in the moment. That’s where the passion of the game comes into play.

It’s not about the celebration. It’s about the execution of the play. It’s about the hustle, the hit, the catch, or the strikeout. It’s about the game.

Make the Passion Play.

Whether it was Randy Arozarena’s great catch in left field against Puerto Rico’s Emmanuel Rivera Friday night at loanDepot Park to help seal Mexico’s win over Puerto Rico, or the simple but difficult execution of getting the go-ahead run home on a single to right (on a pitch on the fists that was fought off by Luis Urias that scored Alex Verdugo), that is winning passion.

Hitters are actually hitting the ball the other way in this tournament, the way it used to be done in the majors.

Randy Arozarena #56 of Team Mexico makes a catch at the wall in the eighth inning during the 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game between Team Puerto Rico and Team Mexico at loanDepot Park on Friday, March 17, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Those are the passion plays I’m talking about. And MLB can learn from all that. Play the games like they mean something and stop with the overanalysis on every single pitch. Get the job done.

That’s what fans want to see. Does anyone in Mexico care about the exit velocity of Urias’ clutch hit? If that were an MLB game, interns (who have a good chance of becoming future GMs) would be tripping over themselves to let the guys in charge know what the numbers were; but not in the WBC – it’s the results, not the technical information that matters.

That’s how the game used to be played and should be played in the future. That’s baseball.

I know everyone is in love with the new speed up rules and the pitch clock but let me repeat, it’s not the pace of play that I care about, it’s the level of play that’s important. Do you think anyone who watched Mexico clash with Puerto Rico cared about the time of game? Did you see anyone in the stands other than Marlins Man looking at their phones this tournament? No – they are watching the action out on the field in front of them. They are looking at big time plays and the subtleties, as well, that make up a real baseball game. They are looking for the passion plays.

Who gives a flying buck about spin rate in this tournament?

Pitchers are going right after the hitters for the most part and that makes a difference. Meanwhile, in spring training action, you’re getting games where pitchers are throwing a combined 400 pitches. Sometimes even worse – in one spring training game last week there were 433 excruciating pitches tossed by both sides. How about a little command to go along with the “weighted ball to the cement wall” velocity?

That’s not baseball. That’s a monstrosity.

And these are guys who are trying to make a good impression to stick with the team; but they have been turned inside out by their velocity training and team gurus preaching metrics over mechanics and the art of pitching.

“It’s so painful to watch,’’ one longtime baseball evaluator said of what he’s seeing this spring.

Ronald Acuna Jr. #42 of Venezuela reacts after hitting a double during the eighth inning during a 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game against the United States at loanDepot park on March 18, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Some scouts have jokingly put themselves on 400-pitch counts because they’re seeing games where no one can get anyone out and no pitchers seem to have a plan.

Hey, but the pitch clock is working wonders, speeding that game up, so that’s all that matters in MLB World. It only took 40 seconds to walk the No. 8 hitter. That’s progress.

One evaluator did offer these words of praise to BallNine about Yankees pitcher Clarke Schmidt, who pitched five perfect innings against the Pirates the other day. I know, it’s only the Pirates; but it still was impressive. “I like Schmidt,’’ the scout said. “He’s always been miscast in the bullpen. He’s got four quality pitches. He’s added his cutter. He landed some curve balls. He got some sliders over. He kept his fastball out of the middle of the plate and you know what, if you do that against these guys who can’t hit, you are going to bleeping pitch good.’’

Wise words.

What we are seeing in Major League Baseball is the finished work of all the years of Nerd Intervention in the game.

“This is the result of them not paying attention to any detail,’’ one scout said. “Not giving a darn about the little things that were always cared about in the last 100 years of baseball. None of them have ever played and they sit from afar and they think this game is easy. They don’t have any patience to let guys learn how to pitch.’’

That is such a great point that has been lost on this generation in charge. In the past some Hall of Fame pitchers struggled, but they eventually figured it out. Instead of being patient now and letting guys figure out how to pitch, how to hit, how to think the game, they create robots. Think of Mike Schmidt. “Look at Mike Schmidt’s first two years with the Phillies and how many times he struck out and how embarrassing his at-bats were,’’ the scout said. “But Mike Schmidt figured it out and the scouts saw the talent and they knew the makeup was there. They figured it out. Be patient with them.’’

Trea Turner #8 of The United States celebrates with teammates after hitting a grand slam during the eighth inning of a 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game against The United States at loanDepot park on March 18, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

In his first 145 major league games Mike Schmidt hit .197 with a .367 slugging percentage and struck out 151 times while walking 67 times. The third baseman finished his 18-year career with 548 home runs and a ticket to the Hall of Fame. He figured it out. He had people help him figure it out. He was signed by legendary scout Tony Lucadello and was helped along by Bobby Wine, his manager in the Winter Leagues in Caquas. Wine, who would become a major league coach and then longtime scout with the Braves, gave Schmidt a tip that you would never hear today. Wine, a Gold Glove shortstop with the Phillies, told Schmidt he was swinging too hard. Cut it back.

Schmidt listened and did just that; he cut back his swing, and the rest is Hall of Fame history. He was elected to the Hall in 1995 after three MVPs, 10 Gold Gloves, and a World Series MVP.

The Winter Leagues used to be a great place for young players to learn about the game and the value of competition. There is serious baseball played with passion in the Winter Leagues.

Now young American players, for the most part, scoot off to the Arizona Fall League, which in the beginning was an excellent league – but has now morphed into something entirely different. As one scout told me about the AFL, “That’s an entitlement league where they throw 20 innings and they have 6.00 and 7.00 ERAs and they are still rated top prospects.’’

Ryan Pressley #55 of The United States is congratulated by Manager Mark DeRosa #4 after defeating Venezuela during a 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game at loanDepot park on March 18, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in the WBC, we are seeing pure baseball.

Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor told my friend Marly Rivera, “I understand how Mets fans are hurting. But while for so many people the regular season is what counts, playing in the WBC means just as much to all of us.’’

After his big catch, Randy Arozarena told Ken Rosenthal, “That was better than any home run I ever hit in the big leagues. That catch was the best.’’

That’s including World Series home runs.

Now comes a Japan-Mexico showdown. “I will give 100 percent,’’ Arozarena promised.

That’s how important these WBC games are to the players and the pride they feel representing their country; and as Lindor noted, “It is the dream of every Puerto Rican ballplayer to wear Puerto Rico’s colors and to represent our country. And not only Puerto Ricans, but every player in the WBC.’’

Team USA players too, like Mike Trout.

And that passion has come through every inning of every WBC game.

Little things mean so much in the game of baseball and I was reminded of the wise words of Cal Ripken Sr., who said: “If you take care of all the little things, you never have any big problems.’’

It’s the metrics of the heart that matter. That’s why we love baseball.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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