SAN FRANCISCO -- Is the World Baseball Classic important? Ask Dominican Republic president Danilo Medina. Just as the news conference after the country's WBC championship game victory was about to begin Tuesday night, the president called manager Tony Pena, second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstop Jose Reyes to congratulate them on the victory.
It was just past midnight in the Dominican, but Medina told them that he couldn't wait until morning. He needed to congratulate them right then.
And why not? As Reyes told his president, "We've accomplished what we've never done before. We're undefeated."
The third WBC is over and, once again, the country that gave birth to baseball did not reach the final round. Though at least Team USA can say it got knocked out by the two teams that played for the championship. As usual, the tournament took a backseat in America to college basketball bracketology and spring training stories about players who claimed they are in great shape because they either gained or lost weight during the winter.
But if the U.S. team was a disappointment, the third WBC was a success in many other ways. Manager Barry Larkin guided Brazil to an upset qualifier victory. The Italian team reached the second round. The Dutch team, with two of the game's top prospects (Jurickson Profar and Andrelton Simmons) reached the semifinal round. Two-time defending champ Japan reached the semifinals as well despite not having any major leaguers. Canada and Mexico contested for the combined WBC/UFC heavyweight championship belt.
Games in Japan drew higher ratings than the Olympics. Half of Puerto Rico's TVs were tuned to the WBC when it beat Japan on Sunday, and three-quarters of the TV were tuned in for the final inning. The extra-inning game between Japan and Chinese Taipei drew the highest cable rating in Taiwan's history.
"It's easy to talk about the negatives of this event, but I can name a hundred positives for every negative anyone would bring up,'" said Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business. "It's an unqualified success. It's about growing the game. Brazil played and the Netherlands went deeper and Italy went deeper and Chinese Taipei played deep and mainland China has the chance to compete against each Asian neighbor because of this. It was a home run."
This has to be right up there with an Olympic gold medal. This is as good at it gets.
”-- Dominican Republic GM Moises Alou
Most importantly for the Dominican Republic, the country with the most major leaguers per capita, made up for its first-round knockout in 2009 by winning every single game this time, including Tuesday's 3-0 shutout over Puerto Rico on a rainy San Francisco night.
"In the D.R., we are one of the countries which produces the greatest number of baseball players," Pena said. "But I had had enough of that shame of not having a trophy like this. And thank God this group of men was able to accomplish what we wanted, which is to put our country at the top in terms of baseball. And I think this trophy, this trophy says it all for the D.R."
"You always remember the first time for everything," said Cano, who was named the WBC MVP after hittimg .469 with a .514 OBP and two home runs. "Your first hit, playoffs. You always remember the first time for everything. This is always going to be in our hearts for the rest of our lives. Everyone of us who played in this game will always remember the World Baseball Classic."
Besides Cano's efforts, the Dominicans won the tournament behind a great bullpen that included Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop and, of course, Fernando Rodney and his giant plantain. Pena also used his bullpen the way U.S. manager Joe Torre did not (or could not), which is to say, he didn't use them like this was just spring training. The bullpen finished with 25 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Rodney pitched in all eight games and had seven saves.
"I know that Rodney pitched in every game, but we had to do whatever we had to do to win the ballgame," Pena said. "And he was electric."
Perhaps there is a lesson in there for the U.S.
When Rodney fanned Puerto Rico's Luis Figueroa for the final out, he struck his trademark archer pose while his teammates swarmed the field, waving Dominican flags and celebrating their long-awaited championship.
"In the Dominican, everyone eats and breathes baseball," general manager Moises Alou said. "This has to be right up there with an Olympic gold medal. This is as good at it gets."
Many of the fans remaining from the announced crowd of 35,703 stayed in the light sprinkle to watch the trophy ceremony. As did the Puerto Rican team, a gesture that Cano, Dotel and Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina agreed upon beforehand regardless of who won the game. "We want to send a message to the Dominican people and the Puerto Rican people," Dotel said. "That we are brothers and we're friends, good friends."
Yes, the WBC is important. And of course, so is the regular season.
The Dominican players had just won the WBC championship. They hugged and slapped and waved their flag on the home field of the World Series champions. They had gold medals draped around their necks. Their president phoned to personally congratulate them. So what's it like now to return to spring training in Tampa, Glendale, Dunedin and elsewhere?
"I can't answer that question," said Dotel, who pitches for the Detroit Tigers, his record 13th team. "I have to see what it's like when I get there. If you want the answer to that question, come to Lakeland [Fla.]."
Opening Day is 11 days away, but the 2013 season of baseball is already off to a great start.