Team USA played the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic on Saturday night in what was officially considered a "home" game. But the game, won by the Dominican Republic 7-5 was played in Miami, a city that must feel very foreign to American teams facing opponents from Latin American countries. Baseball analyst Ken Rosenthal neatly summarized the overwhelmingly pro-Dominican crowd in Miami in a dispatch with the dateline, "SANTO DOMINGO NORTH".
SANTO DOMINGO NORTH — That's what this was, the capital of the Dominican Republic relocated to Miami, the closest major city in the United States.
The crowd of 37,446 — the largest for baseball in the five-year history of Marlins Park — seemed at least 80 percent Dominican and sounded 180 percent that way.
I'm a huge sports fan and I watched the game. I can't say that I was surprised that the Dominicans were able to turn the event into a home game. The night before, a smaller but equally boisterous crowd of Colombian fans nearly did the same thing, as their team lost in extra innings to the United States (also in Miami). Hoping to capitalize on interest from Latinos, tournament organizers chose three U.S. venues — Miami, San Diego, and L.A. — where American teams could be sure to receive mixed support at best. (The U.S. National soccer team appears to have learned its lesson in this regard and now tends to schedule games far from the border when facing opponents from Latin America.)
It's impossible to determine what percentage of the Colombian and Dominican fans in attendance in Miami were immigrants, vs. visitors who flew in for the games, but given the tournament's modest stature (let's face it, the WBC is still not in the same sporting stratosphere as the World Cup), I think it's safe to say that many of the fans rooting against the U.S. team live in this country.
To be clear, I don't begrudge immigrants who want to continue supporting the teams they grew up cheering for. As someone who has continued (against all logic) to root for the Buffalo Bills and Sabres — the teams I supported growing up in Buffalo — despite the fact that I haven't lived there in more than 25 years, I understand that fan loyalty doesn't change overnight. If I moved to Canada or Australia, I wouldn't start cheering for those teams when they played the USA either.
But what I find most annoying when I watch U.S. teams face hostile "home" crowds is twofold: the apathy of American athletes and fans, and the fact that there are so many people who live in this country who aren't just rooting for their teams but are also rooting passionately against our teams.
In watching the Dominican fans bang their drums, wave their flags, and boo their lungs out when umpires made calls against their teams on Saturday night, I didn't sense that if their team lost, they would root for the Americans as the tournament progressed. No, in fact, some of them looked like they were on the brink of orgasm when Nelson Cruz blasted a home run in the bottom of the 8th inning to put the Dominicans on top. Cruz himself acknowledged that the Dominican fans were much louder in this game than in their previous game against Canada. And the American pitcher, Tanner Roark, who served up the game losing home run acknowledged that the hostile crowd got to him.
"Even still right now," Roark said after the game. "You can hear the [Dominican fans'] horns right now."
I suppose one could make the argument that Latino baseball fans want their teams to beat ours so badly because we're considered a baseball powerhouse (despite the fact that we've always fared poorly in this tournament). But the same thing happens in soccer, where we are definitely not one of the best teams in the world, and other sports. For a host of reasons — history, politics, culture — there is no greater joy for many Latin American sports fans living in the United States than seeing their country beat the United States in just about anything. I can understand that, but I wish that they also had at least some secondary affinity, rather than an outright contempt, for our national teams.
American athletes and, to a much less extent, fans, also bear responsibility when our national teams face hostile "home" crowds. While most of the best players from the Latin American countries are participating in the WBC, many of the best American players, including Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Zach Britton, and a host of others couldn't be bothered to play. (Sure, many cite injury concerns, but how is it that only Americans seem to worry about injuries?) These multimillionaire athletes are happy to cash their preposterously large paychecks, but couldn't care less about representing their country in international play. What a shame.
One could argue that American fans have the same opportunity to buy tickets for these games as anyone else, and the fact that they are outnumbered in the stands is their own fault. That's true. But of course, when they see the top American players bowing out of the tournament, many lose interest. If the players don't care, then why should they? Then again, in this post-American age, even if more American fans did show up at the tournament, who knows how many would root boisterously for the national team as opposed to simply cheering for the individual players they like who might be on their favorite MLB team?
I'm also a big tennis fan and this post-American dynamic is also on clear display at the sport's four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. At the year's first three majors, Australian, French, and British fans provide incredible support to their countrymen, at times propelling them to improbable upsets.
Yet American players don't enjoy the same home turf advantage at the U.S. Open and the American players have noticed it. For example, in 2013, the American player John Isner was irked that the New York crowd seemed to favor the Frenchman, Gael Monfils.
It's a free country and fans that buy a ticket can root for whomever they like. But I miss the days when American athletes could count on home games feeling like home games. In these politically correct days, perhaps cheering for the good old U-S-A is now considered xenophobic?