- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BEIJING -- The most amazing thing about the bizarre, controversial way Friday's Olympic baseball games ended is that MLB commissioner Bud Selig had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Then again, at least these games ended with actual wins and losses, although whether that's a good thing depends on which dugout you sat in.
In order to hasten the end of extra-inning games, the new Olympic rule places runners on first and second at the start of an inning and allows teams to bat whoever they want in the order after the game reaches the 11th. Our pampered modern-day closers no doubt would file a grievance over such a rule -- imagine not only entering a game with runners on base, but runners in scoring position and a good hitter at the plate.
"The whole extra-inning thing, I think, is bogus," U.S. first baseman Terry Tiffee said. "But that's the way the thing is played."
Well, that's one opinion, and an understandable one given that the United States lost to Cuba 5-4 in 11 innings under the tiebreaker rule. Jim Lefebvre had a different take after his China team staged an electrifying five-run comeback in the bottom of the 12th to beat Taiwan 8-7. "I think it's great. I think it's exciting," Lefebvre said. "It adds a lot of strategy."
And perhaps a tiebreaker was the only way you could end a tense, exciting and bloody afternoon of political and geographic rivalries. At the main Olympic diamond, the land of the free and the home of the brave was playing communist Cuba, the little island nation just 90 miles off our shores but off-limits to Americans. On the field next door, communist China was playing Taipei, the democratic capital on the Taiwan island just miles off its coast whose independence is disputed by the mainland government. Cuba and the U.S. are famous for their baseball programs, as is Taiwan (think of Chien Ming Wang and the Little League World Series), while China is trying to build baseball through a program managed by Lefebvre and run by MLB International.
In other words, these were big games.
"I don't know if I can put it into words what this means to Chinese baseball, that's how monumental it is," China pitching coach Steve Ontiveros said. "China versus Chinese Taipei is an Ohio State-Michigan-type rivalry. I went to Michigan so I know something about that rivalry, and these guys don't like each other."
The U.S. players aren't too fond of the Cubans right now, either, after what happened in the bottom of the 11th. With Cuba leading 5-3 and runners placed at first and second, Jayson Nix squared to bunt against reliever Pedro Lazo. The pitch came in somewhat high and tight, and the ball struck off Nix's bat and into his left eye. Nix left the field bleeding and was taken to a hospital for examination. Doctors stitched a cut above his left eyebrow and the U.S. team said Nix, who homered earlier in the game, will not return to the Olympics.
"I'm not really pleased with the way the game ended," U.S. manager Davey Johnson said. "They had the pitcher throw right at our batter's head. There's no place for that in baseball. There was a lot of blood in and around his eye. No game of baseball is worth that, as far as I'm concerned."
Yeah, like the 1986 Mets were always gentlemen.
The pitch didn't look as obviously intentional on a TV monitor as Johnson said, and the Cubans were insulted when told of his comments during their press conference.
"That's a lack of respect by the American team," manager Antonio Pacheco said. "Cuba is a very professional team, and we are incapable of doing something like that."
Lazo was incredulous when asked about the accusation and denied it vigorously. "It hit the bat first," he said. "Then it hit him in the face."
The U.S. is 1-2 in the eight-team round-robin (the top four teams advance to the medal round), the same record as China.
China rallied from a two-run deficit in the eighth, blew a 3-2 lead with two out in the ninth, fell behind 7-3 in the 12th and then came back to win with five runs in the bottom of the 12th. "This is the greatest, most exciting game I've ever been involved in," said Lefebvre.
And he said that includes the World Series he played with the Dodgers. An overstatement in the passion of the moment? Maybe. But Lefebvre has been working for years toward this moment. In Major League Baseball's attempt to build talent and a market in China, Lefebvre has been managing the national team in a country where there are only 8,000 registered players out of a general population of 1.3 billion, just a dozen full-size fields apart from the Olympic venue and a handful of places that sell equipment (most of it very expensive). The national team, in fact, has used faded baseballs from the World Baseball Classic.
"This is a huge victory for China," Lefebvre said. "We put baseball on the map today. It's one of those days where you'll look back later and say, 'This is where it all turned around.' "
"Baseball has never been that big a sport in China, and that we won means a lot," Chinese pitcher Bu Tao said. "Maybe it will put baseball to the next stage in China."
Meanwhile, Taiwan was not so excited. The team sat stunned in the dugout while the Chinese hugged on the field. The press conference with the manager ended abruptly with angry Taiwanese reporters chasing after him. Alex Huang, Taiwan's baseball chief, reportedly offered to resign if Taiwan lost to China.
Because this is the last year baseball is scheduled for the Games, Friday might have marked the final time the rivals face each other in the Olympics, though Johnson hopes that isn't the case.
"I would love to play them in the final."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
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