I really, really, really enjoyed myself tonight at Scottsdale Stadium. I don't think I've seen a more exciting and entertaining game between two teams I was (at least, theoretically!) neutral about: any doubt about the viability of the World Baseball Classic as a competitive event evaporated, as the South African Springboks came within three outs of a stunning upset.
$20 each got Mrs. Snakepit and I seats right behind home plate, where we could, literally, have reached out and touched the players [virtually all the pics accompanying this were taken from our seats, or the aisle beside them - click for a bigger version]. It was a decent, rather than overpoweringly full crowd: 5,829, to be exact. Obviously, the Canadians were out in full force (the cars in the parking lot showed many snowbirds in attendance!) but South Africa had a lot of supporters too, with most of the neutrals like ourselves, cheering for the underdogs.
The pre-game ceremonies took quite some time, with each player on the roster for each team being individually introduced, and three national anthems (Canada, South African and US) being played. there was an extremely lengthy pause before the Canadian one, as if they'd lost the CD, prompting an enthusiastic, if off-key acapella version from a group of Northerners towards the back! There was also a moment of silence for Kirby Puckett, which was scrupulously observed.
My main fear was that this would be embarrassingly one-sided. I had a real dread the South Africans would be thrashed within an inch of their lives, given the total lack of major league experience on their roster. And the first pitch from Eric Bedard to Paul Bell caused an almighty hack that would have provoked sniggers in your office softball league. I winced, and discussed the mercy rule with Chris. However, he managed to draw a walk, and battle was joined. That South Africa didn't score in the first inning was not much surprise: that Canada didn't, was something of a relief, though they did put two men on.
South Africa failed to score in the second and third innings either - but to our increasing amazement, their starter Carl Michaels was doing an equally good job of keeping the Canadians in check, including a great grab on a fierce comebacker. He departed with two men out in the third, to warm applause, and after four innings, it was still scoreless, with Canada having only one hit. However, Canada scored three runs in the fifth, the key blow being Matt Stairs' two-run double - seconds before, he'd been chatting casually to a fan as Stairs stood in the on-deck circle, which gives some idea of the relaxed, though still competitive, nature of proceedings.
And that, I thought, would be that: the flood-gates would open, and if the Springboks kept the margin of defeat down to single-figures, that would be not too bad. However, South Africa had other ideas: when they loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth, a genuine buzz run through the crowd. And when Brett Willemburg cleared them with a double off Paul Quantrill, the roar could have convinced you that Scottsdale was a suburb of Pretoria. Worse was to follow for Canada, as they ended up falling behind, 4-3 to the amateur opponents.
The miracle was short-lived, though: Corey Koskie smashed a two-run homer as part of a four-run seventh, to give Canada a comfortable 7-4 lead, and we relaxed. Perhaps a little too much: Mrs. Snakepit noticed the, ah, significant crotchage of Mr. Koskie, but we decided after further research (I told you we were sitting close to the on-deck circle...), that it was simply an athletic protector. Mind you, I never did quite get a satisfactory explanation of what she was doing looking there to begin with. :-)
I must also mention the Canadian player with the great name of Stubby Clapp. At 5'8", he lives up to his name, but it does sound more like a disease: "I'm sorry, I've got a touch of the Stubby Clapp". And both sides has Butchers playing for them: well, the Canadians' was Boucher, naturally... Though perhaps South Africa's most memorable player was Nick Dempsey, a 6'5" giant, who looked like he was wielding a toothpick when he was at the plate, and almost killed Canadian pitcher Jesse Crain when he blasted a single straight back up the middle in the ninth.
But I was generally very impressed by the South Africans. Though their depth was obviously much less than the Canadians, the gap between the teams was not the yawning chasm I expected: Paul Bell was their player of the game, reaching base four times on three hits and a walk, with four RBIs. Their pitching was extremely uncontrolled, with no less than eight wild pitches, which I think comfortably beats the 20th-century major league record for a game.
Anyway, back in the park, the South Africans would just not give up. They loaded the bases again, against Braves' closer Chris Reitsma, and Bell uncorked them, as the Springboks came back from a three-run deficit for the second time in the game, to the resounding cheers of the crowd. We entered the ninth with the underdogs clinging to an amazing 8-7 lead, and one of the biggest shocks in baseball history looming.
However, 17-year old pitcher Jared Elario couldn't hold on, and the Canadians escaped disaster by scoring four more runs, to take the lead back. They held on in the bottom of the ninth, finally putting a bullet in the head of the South Africans, and avoiding a third comeback. But if they lost the game, the Springboks won the hearts of the crowd with their grit, determination and heart. And, certainly, also did their part to ensure the success, both now and in the future, of the World Baseball Classic.