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BILL SHAIKIN ON BASEBALL

In the WBC, it was the few, the proud, the Americans

Team USA players feel good about their World Baseball Classic experience and reaching the semifinals, but no-shows by top players prevented the team from contending for the title.

March 23, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

Evan Longoria packed his bags and flew all the way across the country, all for one at-bat. He struck out.

"I got chills," he said.

Never had he been serenaded by those three letters, by that chant, by tens of thousands of fans in his hometown and his home country.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

"It's a little different than hearing a Tampa Bay Rays chant," he said.

He was a pinch-hitter, representing the tying run, in the eighth inning of Sunday's win-or-go-home game against Japan in the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. He struck out, the United States lost, and again red, white and blue will be absent from the WBC championship game.

One at-bat, one strikeout, one loss.

"I don't regret it at all," Longoria said. "You can't say no to putting on your country's uniform. If I was asked to do it again, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

The U.S. can spend the next four years trying to figure out how not to get beat at its own game. For one night, the players who wore this uniform deserved a salute of their own, for giving their all to an event to which many of their peers and most American fans expressed indifference, to the extent that they expressed anything at all.

Perhaps the result would have been no different had the U.S. had a better roster. But it would have been nice to see the two best American pitchers, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum.

It would have been nice to see Ryan Howard or Mark Teixeira playing first base, instead of a second baseman named Mark DeRosa. It would have been nice if Adam Dunn had been used at designated hitter instead of in right field, where he did not even try to throw out two runners on sacrifice flies that were not terribly deep.

Scot Shields fairly seethed at the mass pass that so many U.S. players gave the WBC.

"If people didn't want to play, we didn't want them to play," Shields said. "We wanted the people that wanted to play. We realize just how good a time this is. I think everybody in the clubhouse will back me up on this.

"The guys in that clubhouse wanted to play for our country and put it on the line."

The guys in that clubhouse played more for each other than for you.

"You want to go there and win the whole thing," DeRosa said. "I don't know if that would have been a huge boost for fans across the U.S. But the players could have gone back to their spring training facilities and felt good about what we accomplished."

The announced crowd for the WBC semifinal in which the U.S. played: 43,630. The crowd for the other semifinal, between South Korea and Venezuela: 43,370.

So much for the theory that American fans would turn out en masse for anything marketed as Team USA.

"In America, we have many sports -- basketball, football -- so our attention is at whichever sport's season is going on at that time," Jimmy Rollins said. "That's what we're paying attention to.

"But, in the other countries, when their team and their country is being represented, they stand behind 'em 100%."

Japan and South Korea play for the WBC championship tonight, and Dodger Stadium might well be packed. There is no country Japan would rather beat than Korea, and vice versa, a political and sporting rivalry on a level unseen in the U.S. since the Soviet Union went out of business.

And, amid the pageantry tonight, the U.S. players shuffle back into spring training, proud of each other, even if no one else seemed particularly proud of them.

"We had the chance to represent our country," Brian Roberts said. "I know it's something I'll cherish forever."

Commissioner Bud Selig said Saturday he would lean on teams to "put the best interests of the game ahead of your own provincial self-interest" and encourage the best players to play. Maybe that could help a U.S. team with a stunning record in the two WBC tournaments: 7-7.

DeRosa thought back to a walk-off victory in Miami -- their last victory in this WBC, six days ago, with losses to Venezuela and Japan since then.

"The win against Puerto Rico, for us, was a huge highlight," DeRosa said. "Hopefully, the American fans caught it.

"We're just disappointed. We expected to win this thing."

So now the U.S. players can get back to spring training, and you can get back to March Madness. But, for one day, let us forget the players who did not show up and tip our cap to the ones who did, Derek Jeter and all the Yankees.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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