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Inside the MLB Fan Cave for the World Baseball Classic

Photo by Amanda Rykoff

Bring sixteen die-hard baseball fans from around the world, put them in a fully-loaded apartment in New York City, deck them out in colorful team garb and have them tweet, post and blog about watching every World Baseball Classic game at all hours of the day and night. That’s what’s been happening since the first pitch of the 2013 WBC as part of MLB Fan Cave: World Baseball Classic Edition.

Building off the success of MLB Fan Cave (back for a third season next month), Major League Baseball decided to put a global twist on the promotional initiative for the third edition of the international tournament, which debuted in 2006. From March 2 through March 19, thirty-nine games will be played in seven different venues in four nations and territories with the winner taking home the titles of 2013 World Baseball Classic Champion and International Baseball Federation World Champion.

“The Fan Cave has been enormously successful as an initiative for a variety of reasons and looking at the WBC as an important initiative of ours coming up, we thought there was an opportunity to merge the two,” Matt Bourne, MLB Vice President of Business Public Relations said. “The last time we had the WBC was 2009 and the social media landscape looked extraordinarily different than it does right now. We wanted to make sure we were utilizing social media in relation to this tournament and we found that the Fan Cave concept is a fun and great way to do that as well as just being a terrific promotional platform.

“It’s about bringing people from around the world together for one common subject and that’s baseball and the World Baseball Classic.”

Enter sixteen superfans (eleven men and five women) representing each of the teams who qualified for this year’s tournament — Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Spain, United States and Venezuela. MLB worked with individual baseball federations in each country and territory to put the word out via social media and other outlets about the WBC Edition of the Fan Cave. Thousands of fans from around the world submitted videos and essays.

WBC 2013 Fan Cave Dwellers jump for a picture near the outfield wall of Citi Field. (Photo by Thomas Levinson/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The fans will watch every WBC game together on the Cave’s signature “Cave Monster” wall of televisions — whether at 2 a.m., 6 a.m. or 9 p.m. — until the team they represent is eliminated. When I visited the Fan Cave on March 8 during the United States vs. Mexico game, the superfans from Australia, Brazil, China and Korea had gone home after their teams were eliminated earlier that week, but plenty of brightly-colored uniform shirts and hats remained.

One superfan who will stay at the Fan Cave is Pierluigi (“Luigi”) Mandoi, a 22-year old law student from Lecce, Italy. Despite hailing from a soccer-crazed country, Mandoi fell in love with baseball when he happened upon Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS while channel-surfing. He was instantly hooked and adopted the Yankees as his team (Mariano Rivera is of course his favorite player). Mandoi has made at least one trip to New York since 2006 and was at Yankee Stadium to see his beloved Bronx Bombers win the 2009 World Series.

Mandoi has become a favorite among the Cave Dwellers for his infectious personality and his love of the game. It didn’t hurt his already high level of enthusiasm that Italy emerged as one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament, advancing into the second round (finishing second in Pool D behind the United States).

Team Italy superfan Luigi celebrates with a trip down the Fan Cave Home Run Slide. (Photo by Kelsey Shea Weinrich)

“Just watching the games with all these baseball fans from different cultures from the first second we felt like we knew each other forever, like baseball is truly a global game that unites cultures,” Mandoi, who taught himself English by watching games on MLB.TV said. “It’s just incredible how different people in different cultures watch the same game but watch it in such a different way. Different sayings about what happens in a certain situation, a different saying about when to bunt, when not to bunt.”

Mandoi (who “hates bunting,” for the record) hopes that Italy’s success in this year’s World Baseball Classic and surprising wins over Mexico and Canada to advance to the second round will help increase the sport’s popularity in his home country.

“Italy winning two games the way they won them has actually gained some more attention. I’ve been watching my Twitter timeline and a lot of people in Italy were talking about ‘Oh! this Italian team is going great! This is great! This is wonderful!’” Mandoi said. “I think this is huge. The more we talk about this wonderful sport the more the people, especially the young people, will become accustomed to it and will start playing it and will realize how truly this is the most beautiful game in the world.

“I certainly hope that in a few years we will see another Italian team in the WBC doing equally good results maybe with more Italian born and raised players.”

While the World Baseball Classic edition of the Fan Cave seeks to enhance baseball’s profile in emerging markets like Italy and Brazil, it’s also helping to build up the tournament’s profile in the United States. MLB selected St. Louis Cardinals superfan Kelsey Shea Weinrich to don the red white and blue as the Team USA Cave Dweller. Weinrich, a Top 30 finalist for the 2012 and 2013 regular season Fan Caves, has been fascinated with the experience so far.

“I’ve had a lot of fun just hanging out without the pressure and watching all these other people from around the world watch their own teams,” Weinrich said. “It’s been really cool because everybody has their own way of cheering from different sections of the world — some are louder and more musical, some are really stoic and quiet so it’s really fun to see the differences and to talk to them about why they cheer the way the cheer.”

During Friday night’s game, Weinrich didn’t have very much to cheer about. Team USA trailed early and eventually lost 5-2, much to the delight of Team Mexico’s representative, Mariana Patraca Dibildox of Mexico City. Dibildox, who plays on the Mexican national softball team, high-fived the players on the Cave Monster screens as they walked off the field.

Weinrich’s fortunes improved over the weekend as Team USA rebounded and won its next two games against Italy and Canada to advance to the second round in Miami (Team USA will play Puerto Rico on March 12).

Mariana Patraca Dibildox high fives Team Mexico after their 5-2 win over Team USA. (Photo by Amanda Rykoff)

Win or lose, the 24-year old Weinrich takes her role as an ambassador to other U.S. baseball fans seriously as she helps promote the WBC.

“Obviously the United States is one of the biggest baseball countries, it’s where baseball was born, but we’re not as into the World Baseball Classic,” Weinrich said. “It’s a growing movement but that’s what a lot of my fellow contestants are saying — ‘You guys aren’t as into this as us.’ I’m trying to build it up and I think it’s definitely growing and the team really cares this year.”

The Cave Dwellers have taken advantage of New York City since they arrived. Field trips have included a visit to Citi Field, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the top of the Empire State Building (with Tommy Lasorda!) and pizza at Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s, despite being sleep-deprived due to the odd start times for the games. (Fun fact: two women from the United Kingdom asked the Cave Dwellers for their autographs when they were out during a shoot last week).

When she isn’t live-tweeting action in the Fan Cave and on the field, Weinrich has used her rare down time to learn more about her fellow superfans. The blog manager compiled a fun list of WBC Cave Dweller facts while she waited for Team USA to finally take the field after almost a full week of tournament action. Weinrich has been impressed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of her fellow Cave Dwellers about both their teams and the WBC.

“Talking to these guys about it, this is something they look forward to for a long time,” Weinrich said. “This is something they’re extremely passionate about which is really cool to see. And especially just learning that baseball is developing in other countries this really is helping. The World Baseball Classic is necessary to grow that and when you care about a sport as much as we all care about baseball then that’s essential.”

The World Baseball Classic continues through March 19 with the championship game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Visit the official World Baseball Classic website for more information and tickets.

Amanda Rykoff is a New York City-based sports writer, sports fanatic, recovering lawyer, devoted aunt, Twitter fiend, proud Penn alum and TiVo junkie. She was a regular contributor to espnW.com, ESPN’s online destination for female sports fans and athletes. Follow her on Twitter.

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