Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Unrealized Dream Called The "World" "Baseball" "Classic"


Did you know that the World Baseball Classic started Friday?  Do you care?  Should you?

One of these days I’m going to write about team sports in the Olympics.  Let me say that with the Summer Olympics throwing out baseball starting with last year’s London Games, there isn’t a global competition for countries to compete in the sport.  And that’s what the WBC needs to be now, even though it began in 2006 when it was still in the Olympics.

Baseball has never had such a planet-wide tournament the way soccer, hockey and basketball have had for decades, so it’s good to stack nations against each other to see who’s the best.  But do the countries care?  And this also has to be asked: Is baseball a world sport?

I wrote about how outrageous it was that the International Olympic Committee is about to eliminate wrestling from the Summer Games, and it is.  But baseball?  I love the sport, but I don’t think it has the worldwide breadth of interest and participation that even wrestling has.  According to the International Baseball Federation, there are 118 member nations, compared to 177 for wrestling.  So I didn’t have too many qualms when they decided to drop the sport in 2005.

The World Baseball Classic has, by default, replaced the Olympics.  But it’s always struck me as bizarre, even a tad embarrassing, to include so many teams when it’s apparent there are countries that care a lot about baseball and countries that have to resort to dual citizenship to bring in players in order to populate a full roster.

Take this year’s tournament.  There are 16 teams in the field, like there have been in the 2006 and 2009 iterations.  Here’s the list on the website.  Take a closer look and think whether or not these countries really care about baseball and should be included in the tournament:

·         Baseball was invented in the United States, even though their results in the WBC so far haven’t reflected that (more on that later).  They’re in, and they should be in every year.

·         The sport’s big in Asia, specifically Japan and South Korea.  The former is the only champion the WBC has ever known, and they defeated the latter in the last tournament.  They’re both in.

·         It’s also huge in Latin America.  There are longstanding pipelines to Major League Baseball from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and even Cuba.  They’re all in.

That’s seven, and obviously it’s strange to have an odd number of teams in the tournament.  But I don’t how much the remaining countries even like baseball.  Who else would you include?  Doubt how much Canada cares about baseball when we’re in the middle of hockey season, but there are too many native players (Joey Votto, Justin Morneau) to keep the Canucks out.  The list of players from Mexico lags behind other Latin American countries, but there is a huge Mexican League affiliated with MLB, so you have to include them.

That’s nine, and at this point we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.  I could add in Chinese Taipei, d/b/a Taiwan, but that’s only because they have kick-ass Little League teams.  Guess those kids don’t stick with the sport because they haven’t finished better than 12th.  But put them in – and because of politics, you’re going to have to add China, too.  And since that brings us only to 11 teams, we have to add a sacrificial lamb -- probably Australia, whose native sons have all made it to The Show with the Minnesota Twins, for some odd reason.

That’s twelve, and my heart gives out if I try to justify the addition of any other country.  And yet the World Baseball Classic believes there are 16 countries worthy enough to be in this year’s tourney.  Brazil?  They’re in this WBC just because MLB wants to suck up to the Olympics since Rio is hosting the Summer Games in three years.  I’ve heard that there’s some cult following of baseball in the Netherlands, mainly from the Caribbean constituent of Curaçao; Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrjens are from there.  But that’s not good enough.  There’s a baseball and softball federation in Italy, believe it or not, but they’re in the tourney only because Mike Piazza is helping the team out.  And I have no idea why the hell Spain’s there.

Having a European presence in the World Baseball Classic is nothing more than an overreach.  That none of the pool play games are being held in Europe clearly shows that baseball is nothing more than a boutique sport there.  Damn, I don’t even know if there are baseball stadiums in Europe.  So why is the WBC pretending that anybody on the continent cares?  They’re going to get crushed anyway.  Just have the seven Western Hemisphere teams play together in the U.S. and the five Asia/Oceania teams play in Japan, and then have the top four teams play in one of the two countries for the title.  Adding any other countries just shows the WBC isn’t serious about bringing together only the best of the best.

But that goal brings its own problems; what happens if the best players of these countries decide not to participate?  Yahoo! Contributor Todd Kaufmann listed many of the players from Team USA that decided not to represent country; that team alone could win a World Series, let alone a World Baseball Classic championship.  That’s reflected in Team USA’s results; a fourth-place finish in 2009, elimination in the second round of group play in 2006.  And it’s not only Americans that are rejecting the tournament; the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner noted that none of the major leaguers from Japan, the Netherlands and Brazil are in the WBC, opting instead to stay in Spring Training with their club teams.

Why is that?  The timing of the tournament has to be a big reason.  MLB and the players’ union have ensured that any participating players will still be paid even if they get injured in the tournament.  But would you risk potential paydays in the future for a shot at patriotic glory in the present?  And would you really feel comfortable if you’re not helping out your primary employer?

That’s why any other time before the beginning of the season would be better.  The weather wouldn’t be favorable for a November World Baseball Classic, but players might be more willing to extend their fitness for a month after the end of the World Series if they could still have time to let their muscles heal before Spring Training.  Doing it right in the middle of the regular season, like the National Hockey League has done so its players can play in the Winter Olympics, is another better option, and you don’t have to worry about conditioning.  Staging it smack dab in the middle of the off-season is the way National Basketball Association players participate in the Summer Olympics; there’s an increased danger of wear-and-tear playing year-round, but that doesn’t stop many of the players from doing double duty.  There isn’t a perfect time to host an international competition, but any time is better than just before the start of club season.

But you have to worry about another group.  The players may or may not care, but do the fans?  Some games of the last WBC, in 2009, were broadcast on ESPN, but now the whole tournament will air on MLB Network, which is in far fewer households.  Moreover, you have to wonder where a fan’s loyalty lies, with club or country.  For example, Joe Mauer is playing for Team USA.  If you’re a Twins fan, does that increase your interest in watching the World Baseball Classic?  Or does it make you upset that he’s not devoting preparation to the team in Spring Training?

Making the fans notice is another problem the WBC faces: Their attention is focused on their teams playing in Florida and Arizona.  Some of the problem lies in the timing, but the tournament is trying to force its way into the consciousness of people who look forward every year to hearing the phrase, “pitchers and catchers report.”  Moreover, fans (as well as players) don’t take this tournament seriously.  The WBC has to overcome what I believe is the unfair perception that because this is a new tournament, it is a contrived one, made up by MLB just to make them more money.  Money is always a consideration, but in the sense that having baseball’s equivalent to the World Cup will stoke interest worldwide.  The tournament is a cool and even noble idea, but it’s going to be hard to convince baseball fans of that.

So the World Baseball Classic has to hope for something amazing to happen – a 20-inning final, Ben Zobrist hitting five home runs in a game (this is Team USA’s roster – not the very best America has to offer, but it’s not bad), highlights that’ll make SportsCenter.  And it’ll help if the United States, the most important country in this tournament if not the best, does well.  I’ll toss off a prediction: Japan three-peats, beating the U.S. in the championship, with South Korea and Cuba also contenders.

However, without anything that raises its profile between now and the final game (which will be played Tuesday, March 19 in San Francisco), you are left with an international competition that is too new to be called a “classic,” has appeal to only certain continents and not the entire “world” (despite the tourney’s attempts to convince you otherwise), and (this is admittedly harsh) doesn’t have enough of its stars playing in it to even be considered “baseball.”  So you don’t have the World Baseball Classic.  You have the “World” “Baseball” “Classic.”  It’ll take a lot of time, changes and arm-twisting to make this a competition worthy of its concept.  Till then, can you take something that should be in quotes seriously?

Posted by WilliamSou at 1:52 PM

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