Thursday, March 02, 2006

World Baseball Classic Is Anything But
By Ben Valentine

Just a day away now.

One more day until we all get to see baseball’s best on the grand stage as players from the world’s top countries compete for the right to be called “the greatest.” One more day until we get those highly anticipated match ups like Korea vs. Japan or Cuba vs. the Dominican Republic. That’s right, just one more day until the World Baseball Classic starts.

In the lead up, baseball is trying to bill this exhibition tournament as something grand and majestic. Nationalism and patriotism are being rammed down our throats more than when George W. Bush is hocking for more leeway to spit on the Constitution. But hey, who can resist the charms of Roger Clemens when he tells us he’s going to be there for his country? “Will you be there for yours?” I have to be, right?

Well actually...sorry Rocket, I can’t make it.

Wow, that was easier than I thought.

Look, in an ideal world, the fans like me would care. We’d all love to see the best athletes compete to see what country is truly the supreme baseball power. But in an ideal world, players, especially pitchers, don’t get hurt. Since this is a less than perfect place, number one starters can go down in March and ruin a team’s chances before the season has even begun. So you’ll have to excuse Mets fans as they hold their collective breaths every time Pedro Martinez throws a pitch in the tournament, or Jose Reyes tries to steal a base. It takes a lot of fun out of the game when your greatest interest is in the health of individual players, not in the final score.

The fans aren’t alone in their sentiments. Owners don’t want it either. So they’ve tried to get their players to drop out and most have been quite successful. Some notable absentees in the WBC will be: Barry Bonds, Mark Buerhle, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Manny Ramirez, Melvin Mora, Billy Wagner and now...Pedro Martinez.

I guess that means we can strike “classic” out of the title right now. Any tournament featuring a 40-year-old Al Leiter on roster of one of the favorites is far from Classic.

So we’ve got one strike on this tournament already. The next problem is with its integrity. This is quite clearly a foray into merchandising. Baseball is trying to literally sell the WBC, jerseys (playing and batting practice), TV rights, hats, T-Shirts, tickets, you name it. Want an authentic USA Derek Jeter jersey, as advertised on the front page of the shop at Get ready to shell out $234.99. Too rich for your blood? How about the non-descript team jerseys for say the Dominican Republic or Japan. $164.99 a piece. Consider that you’re average World Cup uniform, which is FAR more popular and will be worn by far more people, goes for roughly $65.00. More than double that to buy a uniform for an event which may not even happen again? Heck the batting practice uniforms are $79.99! thanks, I’ll pass.

The count is 0-2. Not looking good. Can baseball recover and at least make a good showing? Well here’s problem number three and it’s the equivalent of a wicked splitter that dove into the dirt right at the strike zone.

Thanks to the fear of injury combined with the poor timing of this event, this will be name only. Because it takes place during Spring Training, pitchers have yet to stretch their arms out. If they were pitching exhibition games for their teams, they would go at most three or four innings in the first two weeks of March. It isn’t until the end of the month, when camps break to head north, that you see starters extending into the sixth and seventh innings. Even after the season begins, it’s not uncommon for teams to limit their pitchers to around 90 pitches for their first two or three starts.

When does the WBC conclude? March 20th. See the problem?

Pitchers won’t be stretched out yet. So even without the injury concern, they’d be limited. Add the latter to the mix and you’ve got real short and strict pitch counts. Figure 50-75 tops, even for the latter rounds. Starters can burn that out in three innings, especially early on in Spring Training when their control isn’t up to snuff yet. In other words, Johan Santana might start the championship game, but don’t expect him to be around very long.

Oh yes and there are also ties, for first and second round games. In an attempt to prevent teams from blowing out their pitchers, if the games don’t finish up by the 14th inning, it ends there. Have you heard of a baseball game with ties? The All Star game? Okay, have you ever heard of a real baseball game with ties?

There’s no way around it. Baseball has struck out and looked silly doing it.

They’ve tried to bill this like it’s the equivalent of the World Cup. It isn’ just isn’t. International soccer is truly that; basically every country across the globe dreams of playing in the World Cup. As a result, the top players don’t pull out; they lobby for months and months to be added to the roster. Being the hero of the World Cup is akin to being a national celebrity. Do you think there are going to be celebrations in the streets if the US wins this thing? Not likely. Heck, the US men’s soccer team would probably draw a bigger crowd if they managed to win the World Cup, considering the magnitude of that accomplishment.

Overall, trying to market it like the World Cup makes no sense. Even in that ideal world, the tournament wouldn’t have the history necessary to make it equivalent. But it has to start somewhere right? That’s certainly true. However, most fans would agree it isn’t the idea itself which is faulty, but the execution. If it were done right, the WBC could eventually gain in appeal and importance.

Somethings are unavoidable. Until it becomes a marquee event, players will drop out. Injuries can happen at any time. And baseball will still hock its wears. (Though they could do so for a lesser rate) But there are ways to lessen these issues.

The main element is the timing of the event. It could never happen during the season so the only options are the bookends. The end of the season has its own set of problems; tired players, exhausted after a six month grind, won’t necessarily want to take part in an exhibition. In addition, it is a harder sell financially in November when there is not only the NBA and NHL to steal ratings and interest, but the NFL to contend with as well.

However the post season idea still has more pluses than minuses. For starters, teams will be far more willing to allow their players to go since they will have another four months to recuperate. While there will still be pitch counts, instead of them being paltry 50-70 ones, they’d be the normal 100 pitch ones. Oh and no ties, since the starters could go six or seven innings and thus the whole staff wouldn’t have to be burned out just to get through nine. It would feel more like baseball. The better product would lead to better ratings, and compensate for the extra competition it would get from the other leagues.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, MLB has just created a glorified exhibition. It’s something that people may tune in to because of the novelty of it, or because there’s nothing else on, but don’t expect it to become the next big thing. That’s sad too because it is a nice idea. But when have Selig and the boys at MLB done anything right?

So if you want a watered down product that is nothing more than a marketing tool used to sell some jerseys and air time on ESPN, then by all means watch the World Baseball Classic. It’s about as entertaining as spring training anyway.

But if you’re looking for patriotism and nationalism via highly competitive, top class internationalized sport, wait a couple of more months and try soccer instead.


Blogger The Fan's Attic said...

The WBC should stand for "Who Bleeping Cares?"

4:55 PM  

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