LOS ANGELES – Adam Jones on Saturday night in San Diego made the catch heard ’round the World Baseball Classic when he leapt against the wall to rob Manny Machado of a home run.
It also was heard around America, where, gradually, the Classic is gaining steam among American baseball fans.
“We’ve just got a lot of different things going on in this country at once,” U.S. outfielder Jones, a Orioles star, told The Japan Times on Monday. “Right now March Madness is at its peak. Everybody throughout Major League Baseball and America is making brackets and watching the games. That’s generally where the focus is, especially in mid-March. It’s not the biggest baseball month.
“But this tournament is opening a lot of eyes. It’s great that we’re still in this tournament to where it’s drawing interest. Hopefully we can continue to get the support and build the brand of American baseball. It’s obviously huge, but it’s great to see other countries evolving and producing a lot of good baseball.
“It’s beautiful to see the growth of this game across the entire world, not just in the United States.”
The World Baseball Classic is a Super Bowl of sorts in Japan. Other Asian nations and Latin American countries also treat the event with great reverence. The United States where baseball originated, has been the notable holdout in terms of widespread interest.
“I feel like people have been following it this year in America,” said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. “We’ve done all right so far. I think the games have been entertaining and captivating. Petco (Park, in San Diego) was sold out, and we felt a big American presence behind us. It’s nice to see. It’s a big event in other countries and hopefully it gets to that point in America one day.”
While number of high-profile U.S. players declined to participate, those who suited up say there’s something special about representing their country.
“I just know the group we have, and I know we like the group we have,” said Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals. “It says something about a player that wants to be in these situations. It’s do or-or die situations, and Game 7 situations when you come down to this point in time in the tournament. So we feel we have a group of guys that want to be in those situations.
“That’s one thing that we can all account for is going through this tournament, playing the different countries and going to battle for your country. It’s just special. It’s a different feeling. It’s a different energy. It’s a different type of atmosphere throughout the stadium, but it’s a fun one to play in.”
It’s a sentiment that runs throughout the U.S. team.
“It’s just the passion,” Yelich said. “You have the whole country behind you. When you’re playing during the season, you have your fan base, but here you have the United States of America behind you wanting to win, you have the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela or Puerto Rico or Japan. It’s just different. It’s a special environment and it’s something I really haven’t experienced before.”
Yelich is eager to tell MLB teammate Ichiro Suzuki, back in spring training with the Marlins, all about it after the U.S. plays Japan on Tuesday.
“He’s got two titles in this thing already, he’s got bragging rights no matter what,” Yelich said. “He’s had such a great career and done so much in this game and for this game. It’s just going to be cool to go back and be able to talk to him about the tournament in general, win or lose. Just talk to him about the experience and how fun it was.”
For Jones, wearing “USA” on the front of his uniform hits close to home. He also expressed joy at seeing other players compete for their own nations.
“I was born in San Diego, a very military city, to a military father,” Jones said. “To be able to represent my father, my friends, San Diego, the men and women who are fighting, this is how you honor them.”
“I love it,” he said. “(Manny) Machado is here to represent the Dominican. His mom and dad, grandparents, they’re all Dominican. I remember when we were talking about it, he said he was going to play for the Dominican and I said, ‘as you should. That’s you’re backbone, the people who raised you, and they raised you right.'”
Machado and the baseball-mad Dominicans might be in the semifinals if not for Jones’ spectacular leaping catch on Saturday.
“That was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen in person,” Yelich said. “An unbelievable play. He had to go a long way just to time it like that. People don’t realize how hard that is, but he made it look easy. Definitely a special play.”
Instead it’s the U.S. who will try to further stoke the WBC flames in America when it faces Japan, where the WBC is most popular.
“I’ve had a lot of friends go over there and play, and they’ve said that the culture with baseball is nothing but amazing,” Jones said. “They treat the players well. They just love the game, and that’s great. It’s great to see.
“This game can bring all walks of life, all races, nationalities together. This game has no hate once you cross those lines. It’s all love. That’s what this game is about.”