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Dispatches from the World Baseball Classic Qualifier: Day one

In which DRB’s Malinowski dons a straw hat, grabs a Coney Island hot dog, and settles in for a few rounds of World Baseball Classic qualifiers

Opening ceremony at WBC Qualifier Brooklyn
Ian Malinowski

Today’s baseball fan is surrounded by projections. To be an educated fan is to know what beats the Marcel chimps and why; to have an opinion on which new statcast inclusion will up the hitting projections game the way Steamer used veloicity to up the pitching projection game. Probably you think you can beat PECOTA. Maybe you already have.

And if you have a topic or a team that you’re not up to date on, there’s a corner of the internet full of talented, well-informed, good-looking aficionados ready and willing to catch you up.

But yesterday, for the first time in about 9 years, I watched baseball without knowing the first thing about what to expect.

It’s kind of exciting.

Maybe that’s why I’ve done zero research prior to the World Baseball Classic qualifier. (Or maybe I’m just lazy.)

Sure, there will be moments of expectation. I expect Ike Davis and Ryan Lavarnway to hit low-minors level pitching. But most of these players I’ve never heard of. Pakistan, for instance, has no players in affiliated ball.

Go Pakistan.

I love the Coney Island subway station. Wholly above ground, it has spacious platforms, no walls, and a high, arched roof that allows plenty of light in between the shades.

Coney Isand Subway Station
Ian Malinowski

Built in 1919, it reminds riders of the grand old stations from the golden age of train travel, when people dressed well and then waved to their beloved as their train left the station.

Coney Island Subway Station, from the road to the boardwalk.
Ian Malinowski

The Coney Island subway station emphatically makes the claim that amusing the masses is important, serious business.

Pleasantly, there are no masses at Coney Island at noon on a Thursday.

An oddly empty boardwalk.
Ian Malinowski

Plenty of oddballs, though.

Is the toothless, shirtless old man with a jutting chin and tattooed, leathery skin stretched over big muscles the oddball, or is it the young man in a straw hat scribbling notes about him?

I arrive at the stadium for the opening game, Pakistan vs. Brazil, while the rosters are being announced.

Public Address announcer: “Infielder, number eight, Saddam Hussein.”

Tiny crowd: “Ooooooooooooooh.”

The Pakistani national anthem is being performed by the “Pakistani American Children’s Organization,” which oddly enough appears to be eight men, all over fifty, who clearly aren’t singers. This is great.

The crowd is fun. There is almost no one here, of course, but those who are seem to be having a grand time. I’m sitting on the Pakistani side, and five or six fans have stretched a giant Pakistani flag over a couple sections of seats.

A group of Pakistani bros periodically shouts some chant, and the players in the dugout finish the last line of it without taking their eyes off the game. The fans keep asking each other if they think the game is being televised on ESPN (it is, on ESPN3).

I don’t think things are going to go well for their team, but I also don’t think anyone will especially mind.

That was pretty interesting. Brazil won by mercy rule, 10-0 in the seventh inning, which is pretty much what I expected. Brazil is just much better. They have the largest Japanese expat population in the world, and the Japanese play baseball. In Pakistan, people play cricket.

But the way that Brazil was better looked different than I expected.

We’re used to watching players with thousands of baseball games under their belts. Even in the affiliated minors, everyone is actually a seasoned veteran. When a scout says that someone has good or bad instincts, he’s judging on a sliding scale of players who really know what they’re doing.

But while the Pakistanis looked like a baseball team—their corner outfielders were a bit smaller than I’d expect, but everyone was clearly an athlete—their “instincts” were on a whole other (lower) level.

For instance, the first batter, Muhammad Sumair Zawar, led off with a single up the middle. When the next batter struck out swinging on a ball in the dirt, he was doubled off first. The catcher had blocked it. The pitch never got away. I don’t think Zawar was trying to advance. But when the catcher threw down to first to complete the strikeout, Zawar was still off the bag.

Later in the sixth inning, the Pakistani catcher, Umair Imdad Bhatti, hit a line drive to the wall in right center. It was the type of hit that’s a triple if a player has wheels and a double if he’s a catcher. Bhatti apparently thought he had wheels, and the relay throw beat him to third base even before he got to the halfway point between second and third.

Similarly, in the seventh inning, the left fielder, Fazal Ur Rehman, walked, and the designated hitter, Burhan Johar, hit a grounder through the right side. The throw came in to second base, which is totally routine. But then the Brazilian fielder bobbled his catch, and despite the ball only bouncing a few feet away, Rehman took off for third.

It was bizarre to see, but it makes sense if you figure that we’re used to watching players who have lived and breathed baseball since well before they were ten years old. In Pakistan, things are different.

Pakistan’s manager, Syed Fakhar Ali Shah, spoke to the difference.

It wasn’t all amateur hour for Pakistan.

Props to the starting pitcher, Inayat Kahn, a crafty righty who has limited stuff but who clearly knows how to use it. He worked his changeup and other soft stuff all along the bottom of the zone. Brazil figured out that they needed to take pitches and force him up into the zone, but even with their adjustment, a couple better-positioned (there’s no data on these guys, so no fancy shifts) or more rangy fielders, a catcher with a competitive pop time, and some better ball-in-play luck, and this would have been a scoreless outing for Kahn.

And also props to the second baseman Faqir Hussain, He fielded his position well and in two plate appearances connected for two doubles.

On the Brazilian side, starting pitcher Jean Tome was aggressive and efficient, pumping the strike zone with 32 of his 40 pitches, wracking up four strikeouts in five and a third innings. Some of his stuff looked sharp. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in affiliated ball (haven’t looked it up—enjoying my naivete/being lazy).

And the Brazilian hitters produced all through the lineup and ran at will.

I’m spending the time between games at Ruby’s Bar, the oldest beach bar on the boardwalk (1972, don’t get too excited), and according to the Travel Channel, one of the “21 sexiest beach bars.”

One of the “21 Sexiest Beach Bars”
Ian Malinowski

Not too sure about that last bit, but there is shade. Also there’s an old beach bum who likes my hat and who says he owns a summer home in Naples. Sometimes New York is a caricature of itself.

The crowd for the Israel Great Britain game is much larger, but the whole thing still feels novel and exciting. There’s a pack of elementary school age Jewish kids who keep running back and forth in the row in front of my feet, asking each other and their parents what the score is and whether or not Israel is winning.

I’ve heard “Jason Marquis is from Staten Island” and “Ike Davis played for the Cyclones” at least five times each.

Between innings a fan featured on the jumbotron played the “how many MLB teams can you list” game. He got credit for “Expos.” He did not mention the Rays.

In the end Israel won handily, and they were clearly the better team, but Great Britain did manage to make things exciting for a minute. They took a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh, but then Israel immediately answered with four runs in the bottom of the inning, with their bevy of retired major leaguers and players from the affiliated minors giving them a real advantage.

Some notes:

  • Israel’s first baseman, Nate Freiman, is a very big man—at least an inch or two taller than Ike Davis, who is also a big man.
  • Ryan Lavarnway looks like a major leaguer. He’s the biggest, strongest-looking guy I’ve seen today, and his bat speed is clearly better than that of pretty much everyone else.
  • Jason Marquis looks like a 38-year-old retired pitcher. He toed the rubber with confidence, but he only lasted two innings.
  • The guy who relieved Marquis, Josh Zeid, has sharp stuff. Or probably it’s just relatively sharp stuff. I know Zeid. He’s made the majors and hasn’t been able to stick. That makes him a star here, but let’s not get carried away.
  • The same goes for Israel’s closer, Brad Goldberg. I don’t trust my scouting, but I think he had the best stuff—lively fastball, hard slider—I’ve seen all day.
  • While this looked like a close game, it didn’t need to be. Israel stranded a ton of baserunners. Great Britain should still be able to handle Pakistan, but unless Pakistan used their only decent pitcher already, I don’t expect a mercy rule.

Final note:

I got to chatting with King Henry, a performer and master of ceremonies at the Brooklyn Cyclones games. Rather than his normal getup, the King was wearing a snappy old-timey brown suit and a dapper straw hat.

It turns out that this is special for the World Baseball Classic, where King Henry has to drop the royalty moniker and getup (although the PA announcer slipped up a couple times) in an attempt to neither show favoritism nor to appear to be making fun of our guests form the monarchy across the Atlantic.

So for these four days, he’s only “Coney Island Barker Henry.”

Farewell, y’all. More international baseball tomorrow.