by West Coast CraigÂ Â
Chavez Ravine–In 1998 I went down to the Los Angeles Coliseum to see the US Soccer team play World Champion Brazil in the Gold Cup semis…it was a chilly February night, and only 12,000 and change were on hand, making the venerable old dump seem extra cavernous. Most of those 12 grand were wearing yellow jerseys, but the US supporters–remember, this is soccer, and 1998 soccer no less–got up a lusty USA chant as Kasey Keller stoned point blank shots, and a shocking second half goal by Preki gave the US it’s first and only ever win over the Brazilians. We were so thrilled we made sure to come back down that weekend for the Championship against Mexico, thinking if it’s anything like this sparse showing, for World Champion Brazil, it’ll be easy to get tickets. This was my first real introduction to international sports…that Saturday the entire Coliseum was overflowing with ninety-one thousand green shirts, all blowing those plastic horns so that the giant concrete and steel oval was physically vibrating like a bee hive. Ninety-one thousand screaming and dancing and chanting and ole-ing Mexicans…and us. The Tri-Colores pounded our boys that day, of course (again, 1998), much to the quaking crowd’s delight, and the pitch only ramped up as the afternoon wore on. It made an impression.
I’ve been pretty much on record here that I’m all on board with this whole World Baseball Classic thing. It’ll never be soccer’s World Cup, it won’t take the place of the Olympics, but it’s international competition in my favorite sport, and sparks a kind of fervor in its partisans that feels a little different…and, one hopes, an equal fervor in its participants. I went down to a semi in San Diego three years ago, DR versus Cuba, and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and great baseball, with crowds waving giant flags and chanting songs, so I eagerly got tickets for this years when I heard the final games would be at Dodger Stadium. Had a buddy in town for it, our fantasy draft that afternoon, and world class ball not ten minutes down Sunset Blvd…a weekend of baseball ahead. In March. Now there are notable complaints about this tournament…they’ve been sounded and routinely noted, and I have to admit there are faults. The baseball itself is a bit more volatile than you see in the regular season, a jaw dropping play followed by a ridiculous error or two. There are a lot of pitching changes makes the innings drag. I don’t think the crowds are what the MLB was hoping for, either…the official attendance for tonight’s USA-Japan game was announced at 46 thou, but on an unseasonably cold and bitter night at Chavez Ravine, the number looked about ten grand less.
Saturday night’s crowd was listed at 43 thousand, but it had a lot more presence. Even though the game kind of stunk…the people still making their way through the parking lot during the first inning–WBC or not, this is Los Angeles–missed Bobby Abreu’s dropped can of corn, coupled with Carlos Silva starting an important game, and seven runs in the first two innings. Â The scoreboard read that Venezuela was the home team…but to the clear majority of fans it was Seoul West. They were loud, banging those inflatable thunder sticks like mad, and in unison, in a beat that sounds like that Terminator sting…duh-duh-deh-duh-duh, accompanied with some haunting chant that sounds like “Heyyyyyy Yojimbo!” I know they’re saying “Korea” somewhere in there, but whatever it is, hearing four tiers of this synchronized pounding and chanting reverberate throughout the stadium is startling. These people were organized, everyone in our section had on a blue Korean National Team Supporters shirt, with some kind of strange Korean sponsor. The people in front of us had shirts courtesy of something called “Enjoy and TV” .com. They all had those thunder sticks, and they all knew all the chants. They were oddly silent when their players were introduced in English, when say their leadoff man Yong Kyu-Lee is announced coming to the plate, but then when they’re announced in Korean, the Korean way–Kyu-Lee Yonngggg!–they go crazy…it’s as if by switching the words around a little you render them completely unrecognizable. In the dugouts, both teams spent most of the game up on the top step, nobody hiding back inside, and this was in a game that for all intents of purposes was over after two innings and had us wondering what the mercy rules were at this stage. Venezuela had looked so good all tournament, rolling over everyone, but they fell totally flat this night…and Korea is a great ball club, capable of playing that Japanese technical small ball style, but also complemented by actual American sized sluggers who hit home runs, with great defense and sharp pitching to boot. Being in Los Angeles, with its large Korean population, also adds a dimension to the crowd factor…for this crowd also got louder as the game went on, and finished strong. Apparently their fans do this during the Korean regular season games as well. Gotta say I like it a lot better than the wave.
It’d rained late in the night, and was overcast and blustery all day Sunday leading up to the USA-Japan game. It made for a pretty sunset, with actual cumulous clouds–we don’t usually get the fluffy kind here–but we Angelinos have skin too thin to be out at a game in the 50s, with a ten degree wind constantly chilling our face. This crowd was notably less partisan than the night before…this wasn’t the Japanese presence of Nomomania back in the 90s, and while there were sporadic bursts of the good old USA USA, our side needed a little more inspiration. It never came. The wind cut across the field from left field to right, and killed every fly ball in its tracks. Just like that, the US’s primary advantage–power–was sapped from the squad, and even though they made it look good for a few innings, they can’t match small ball with the Japanese, who have a solid defense (no Adam Dunn lumbering in right, or aging Derek Jeter ranging short), and pesky hitters who shredded Roy Oswalt in the fourth and, apart from a brief moment of competition when the US cut the lead to two in the eighth, never really looked back. The Japanese fans were happy, but weren’t quite as unified as the Koreans.
So tonight’s final is not the ideal one as far as the MLB could want. The US team, laden with All Stars but never quite jelling beyond spring training mode, pretty much squeaked through to this game (thanks in part to that great win over Puerto Rico…as well as some kind scheduling thanks to this confusing double-elimination style)…but had they pulled off another big comeback and beaten Japan, people would be talking and you wouldn’t need me here to tell you to watch tonight. It’s an all Asia final, but with two bitter rivals who’ve played each other four times this tournament already, who play two different styles, who are both representing countries that sincerely care about the outcome, and who will surely fill the place up. All I can say is, the Japanese fans better step it up, because the Koreans are bringing their A-game. I’ll be there, happily soaking it up.