Bruce Markusen’s Cooperstown Confidential is carrying an article called "Defending the World Baseball Classic." I agree with Markusen that the three arguments he calls major criticisms are weak. But that doesn’t mean the WBC is a good idea. It just means that critics are focusing on relatively minor things.
The World Baseball Classic can’t be taken seriously because all of the pitchers will be on pitch counts. Markusen correctly points out that pitch counts are a part of regular and post-season MLB. The issue here should not be the pitch counts per se, but the fact that pitchers are at their weakest in the spring. It takes them time during spring training to get their arms into pitching shape, even if they adhered to a vigorous workout regimen in the off-season. As fans, we even expect that over all in the first 2-4 weeks of the regular season, the hitters will have an edge over the pitchers. The concern with the WBC is for the possibility of injury, even with pitch counts. There are other ways to hurt an arm besides throwing too many pitches.
Fans are not the only people worried. The Seattle Mariners filed objections to keep 19-year-old pitcher Felix Hernandez (Venezuela). The Mariners don’t want Hernandez’ very young arm taxed so early in the year.
Young A’s starter Danny Haren told MLB.com that he’s thinking about skipping the WBC: "I haven’t really made a formal decision yet, but it’s looking like right now I’m probably not going to [play in the WBC] this year," said Haren. "Maybe in the future, but I don’t think I’m far enough along in my career to feel comfortable doing something like that, getting game-ready that early."
At the other end of the age spectrum, 43-year-old Roger Clemens, who has had back and hamstring problems, is going to take until mid-February to let Team USA Manager Buck Martinez know if he will be healthy enough to play.
The Seattle Mariners filed an objection to keep pitcher Travis Blackley (Australia) out of the tournament. They think the strain of pitching this early will be too much on Blackley, who is coming off shoulder surgery. The Milwaukee Brewers lodged an objection to the inclusion on the provisional USA roster of pitcher Ben Sheets. He finished 2005 on the disabled list with a back injury.
Position players, as well as pitchers, could get injured. Barry Bonds, recovering from serious knee problems that kept him out most of last year, decided not to risk his 2006 season over the WBC. He said on his web site:
"After the announcement I received a lot of criticism as well as concern from fans and my family and friends," he said. "The obvious objections were about my health and whether or not I would be ready to play. In the end, I decided that I can’t take any chances that might jeopardize my season. I don’t want to give the impression that the WBC is not important. I know this means a lot to showcasing our sport worldwide, and the patriotism of playing for Team USA would have been a great honor. I feel what is best for me, my family, the Giants, and our fans is that I sit the WBC out."
This concern is compounded by an issue brought up by Mark of MLB.com in the comment portion of Markusen’s blog entry. "Like [Brad] Lidge said, it’s going to be a post-season atmosphere right out of the gates…" Mark (and Lidge) think this is a good thing., But pre-season bodies playing with a post-season mentality sounds like a short cut to the DL for someone, especially if the player is already nursing an injury.
Aside from possible injury there is the fact that many players would miss part of spring training. (About 48 per cent of the players on the WBC provisional rosters are member of major league organizations) Missing part of spring training can interfere with teams gelling as teams, especially in this era of free agency and more trades. That’s been on the mind of Panamanian and Yankees star closer, Mariano Rivera: "Spring Training, you get to chat with your teammates, get to know them better," he said during last year’s All-Star break, "If everyone is playing for their country, how many players are we going to have there?"
The high percentage of WBC players already in the US major or minor leagues raises the issue of whether or not the WBC is an MLB All-Star tournament in the disguise of an international event. We have already seen the All-Star Home Run Derby turned into a country vs. country event. Is MLB exploiting the country vs. country format to rake in more money with the WBC?
Markusen wrote: Why not let this thing develop and unfold, allowing the best baseball-playing countries in the world to show off their national pride in what could very well be a spirited international tournament? I agree that the WBC, done right, could be a spirited international tournament. But the idea of the best baseball-playing countries in the world showing off their national pride gets watered down when you think of Mike Mulder playing for the Netherlands, or Mike Piazza playing for Italy. And do you really think of the Netherlands or Italy (or Australia, or South Africa, or mainland China) as being among the best baseball-playing countries in the world?
Then there was the vacillation of U.S.-born Alex Rodriquez over whether to play for the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, the latter of which truly is a great baseball-playing country and has quite a stacked roster without A-Rod, thank you. But it’s a roster stacked with MLB stars. Is the WBC really about how baseball has spread to other nations or how U.S. MLB, known for having discriminated against Black, Latin, Asian, Jewish and other minority players, is showing off how it now lets ethnically diverse players come into the U.S. game?
With so many American-born players either questionable for the Classic, or dropping out altogether, the U.S. team won’t be the powerhouse that some envision. I agree with Markusen’s assessment of Team USA: "Given the depth of American talent currently playing in the major leagues, there will be no shortage of quality players on the U.S. team." This concern about the strength of the American team betrays the feeling some people have that the WBC isn’t or shouldn’t be a competitive international tournament, but one that the USA should dominate, with the other countries just window dressing. That’s no reason to have a tournament.
The Classic will have trouble garnering media coverage because it is being played at the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament. This argument is weak for a number of reasons. As Markusen points out, there are days during the week during which the WBC will receive no media competition from the NCAA tournament. There are also time- shifting mechanisms such as TiVO and VHS, which will allow fans to tape one game while watching the other. TV and radio sports shows and news wrap-ups, magazines such as Sports Illustrated, and the sports sections of newspapers typically cover more than one sport per edition or issue. Both the WBC and the NCAA tournament will get their share of media coverage. There is also the fact that not all baseball fans are college basketball fans and vice versa.
Will media from Japan or Cuba or the Dominican Republic care about the NCAA Tournament? I don’t think so. What this argument is really about is media coverage in the U.S. Is this supposedly international tournament really dependent on U.S. media coverage for its viability? What happens if the U.S. doesn’t make the finals?
The weak media argument does again raise a stronger objection, that of the timing of the tournament. To this, Markusen asks: "What’s the alternative?" If the games were played during the summer, baseball’s regular season would have to be shut down for several weeks, causing games to be missed and interrupting the ebb and flow of the various pennant races… Another possibility that has been suggested would have the World Baseball Classic played in November, just after the World Series. Well, there are more problems with that. Coming on the heels of the World Series, the Classic would be considered a letdown, with the final results paling in comparison with those of major league baseball’s postseason. Then there’s also the problem of player fatigue. By November, most players are exhausted, ready to take some relaxing time off at the start of the winter. They’re simply not apt to be in prime condition–either mentally or physically–for another rigorous series of competitive games. "
Well, they are not in prime condition in the spring either; that’s why we have spring training. One possibility, if this WBC idea is to take hold, would be to shorten the U.S. MLB season, so as not to overextend the players in the fall. A way to do this would be to eliminate regular season interleague play. Teams with natural interleague rivalries should play an exhibition series for bragging rights just before the beginning of the regular season. The A’s and the Giants do this. It’s very popular. But, for example, do we really need the Giants to play the Royals or the A’s to play the Pirates during the regular season? No.
As for Markusen’s observation that "Coming on the heels of the World Series, the Classic would be considered a letdown, with the final results paling in comparison with those of major league baseball’s post-season." So much for the idea of the WBC being something exciting. One of my objections, that the U.S. organizers haven’t really decided what the WBC is supposed to be (except a cash cow), shows up in the notion that the "Classic" would be a letdown after the World Series. The argument indicates that the U.S. doesn’t plan to train the fans to look at the "World" Series as our national championship, and MLB as part of what is now, in fact, a more global sport.
Markusen asked: "Why do I get the feeling that if the NFL were to try something like this, the national media would be eating it up like candy?" I don’t know. But I do note that the NFL’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl, is played after the Super Bowl. I don’t hear complaints about its results paling in comparison to the Super Bowl. If the WBC is simply to be an all-star tournament, the same should hold true here.
If the point of the WBC is to further spread baseball to other countries, MLB can take a page from the NFL’s playbook: the NFL’s European season is during the U.S. NFL’s off-season, and the players are typically younger players sent abroad for more seasoning. We don’t see the best of the U.S. NFL playing a season in Europe as well.
If, somehow, we are supposed to take the WBC results seriously—whether we should is a topic for some other article–two things should happen: 1) It should be staged after the World Series, and since the U.S. doesn’t field a national team per se, the U.S. roster should be drawn from the two World Series teams. (I don’t see this as a denigration of the "World" Series, as it would be played for U.S. bragging rights. Perhaps a name change to something like "U.S. Series" would be in order, though). The WBC tournament can be played two weeks after the "U.S. Series", just as the Super Bowl is played two weeks after its two teams are determined. Shortening the U.S. season a month by eliminating regular season interleague play can help avoid overfatiguing the WBC participants. Shortening the U.S. season would also allow the WBC to be finished in October, to not conflict with Latin American winter ball. U.S. media, having no conflict in October with either the NFL playoffs or the NCAA tournament, can bill the WBC as a true "World Series," with players from the year-end’s hottest U.S teams competing against the best of the rest of the world.
2) As it gets off the ground, the WBC should be limited to the truly best baseball-playing countries: no Netherlands, Italy, South Africa, Australia or mainland China. As the global popularity of baseball grows and the skill level of different countries increases, the format of the tournament can be changed to include them, just as we have changed MLB to include expansion teams. The World Cup of Soccer might offer examples of how the tournament can be organized. But as it stands now, the WBC is a bad idea. Back to the drawing board, folks!
Congratulations to Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas, who just signed a one-year deal to be the DH and backup 1B for the Oakland A’s. Over the last two of his 16 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, the biggest hurts were to Thomas himself. Injuries severely curtailed his performance; he played only 34 games in the 2005 White Sox World Championship season, all well before the kids had to go back to school.
But, as I saw firsthand in early July, when he sent a Barry Zito pitch deep into the left field bleachers at the Coliseum, Frank Thomas can still put the big hurt on the ol’ horsehide when he can stay in the lineup. A’s management has been carefully watching Thomas’ rehab from two breaks of an ankle bone; the signing indicates their satisfaction with his progress. Associated Press is reporting that the contract is incentive-laden; he’ll make more money the longer he avoids the DL due to left-ankle injuries; 550 plate appearances will also sweeten the pot.
If Thomas can stay healthy, this future Hall of Famer will be a huge upgrade to the A’s DH’ing capabilities. He’s also one of the good guys of baseball, who should go out on his own terms, not on one or two "bad breaks."
Welcome to the Bay Area, Frank. You’ll love playing in our weather.
Whether it was devised to draw attention away from the steriod scandal, to make up for the bouncing out of baseball from the Olympics starting 2012, or to find yet another way to make money from the desperation of baseball-hungry fans in the US, Japan and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the WBC is a bad idea.
The very name is a joke. A true "classic" has been around for a while. And are The Netherlands, Italy, South Africa and Australia "classic" baseball-playing countries?
The timing is bad. To me, the WBC has all the "excitement" of the pre-season NIT—and mind you, I like college basketball—but with one fatal twist: unlike the pre-season NIT teams, the WBC teams are ad hoc. This disrupts Spring Training. If someone gets hurt during a spring WBC, they could be out for the beginning of the regular season, longer if the injury is serious. The regular season is more important than a pre-season tournament.
Politics has intruded. The US Department of the Treasury has finally issued Cuba, a world baseball powerhouse, a license to play in the WBC. But it happened only after Cuba was forced to declare that it would make a charitable contribution out of any financial gain it might make from the tournament. Cuban President Fidel Castro has said any funds Cuba got would be earmarked for the US victims of Hurricane Katrina. While the hurricane survivors need all the help they can get, let’s not forget that Cuba offered help soon after the disaster but was rejected by the same US government that is now granting a license for Cuba to play only after Cuba agreed to donate its proceeds to the US hurricane victims. This sounds like a US government stick-up of Cuba to me.
Baseball has spread internationally, so to call our post-season series The "World" Series and its winner The "World" Champions" is hubris. Here’s a suggestion: Japan, Puerto Rico, The Dominican, Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico should hold a tournament using teams already playing in those countries without borrowing players from the US major or minor league systems. The champion of that tournament can play the US "World" Series winner in a best of seven around the end of October, first week of November. As other nations become more prominent in baseball, the format of the international tournament can be changed to include them, just as we have changed the format of our post-season play to take into account the expansion of the major leagues.
This way, spring training would not be disrupted and anyone injured would have the winter to heal. The tournament and showdown with the US "World" Series winner would truly be a meeting of championship teams.
News Item from Carrie Muskat/MLB.com 1/10/06
CHICAGO — Wrigley Field may be just what Jacque Jones needs. The natural grass will be welcome for the new Chicago Cubs right fielder after spending seven years on the Metrodome’s harsh turf.
"My body was saying, ‘Thank you,’" Jones said Tuesday at an introductory news conference. "There’s no substitute for grass."
There indeed may be no substitute for a well-watered lawn when it comes to keeping baseball (and football) players healthy while running, diving, sliding, falling or otherwise pounding the ground in practice and in games. But there is something that could help the players deal better with artificial turf. It’s called padding. They use it under carpets. Why not put more of it under the turf for a softer, more user-friendly field?
Yes, I know things are a lot better than in the days of the original Astroturf. But players are still suffering turf-related wear and tear that is subtracting from their productivity and longevity.
Now, "My Friend, the Yankees Fan" would simply say, "Ditch the domes." But, in some places where it gets outrageously hot, like Houston and Phoenix, you are seeing at least retractable domes. I think other really hot-summer places, like Denver and Baltimore, should have included retractable domes on their new stadiums, and not just for the players: fans shouldn’t have to risk heat stroke to attend a game, especially given what it costs to buy a ticket to a major league game in most cities.
Likewise, a dome makes sense in places where it rains a lot, such as Seattle. In fact, from what I can gather from the Deep Fried Fish blog, regular afternoon showers in Miami discourage attendance at day games. Who the heck wants to ditch work early to get soggy? (Well, not THAT kind of soggy, anyway!) Rainouts (and early in the season, a few snowouts in the northern cities) are bad for business. And if any place needs a retractable dome, it’s Arlington, Texas, where the public address announcer asked third-deck fans to evacuate when dry lightning came into the area during the two Rangers’ home games to which I listened in 2005. Why pay to risk electrocution?
Then, of course, there are the places like Tampa Bay and Jones’ former professional home, the Minnesota Metrodome, where the permanent dome always blocks the sun. Blocking the sun kills the grass, so they need artificial turf. But they don’t need artificial turf’s attendant subtle and not-so-subtle injuries.
How is it that we can put robots on Mars, but we can’t come up with safer, more comfortable playing surfaces?
Soft landings, Jacque!
Though 2005 was Eric’s abysmal, aberrant year, it was not without its good moments. So since MLBlogs has mentioned that Pinstripe Pride has listed the 5 best moments for a Yankee fan in 2005, and suggests that other writers follow P. Pride’s example, I will give you my 5 favorite Eric Byrnes moments of 2005. (And as abysmal and aberrant as 2005 was, he had more than 5 great moments, I’m just adhering to the precedent set by Pinstripe Pride).
#5 June 25 – The A’s v. the Giants at the Coliseum. This was a very strange game for Byrnes, but one that showed why he’s a great guy to root for. It was a defensive gem for him. He had two great catches: a dive in left center and a crash into the wall down the left field line. For that second catch, Byrnesie ran as hard as he could and made a backhanded grab near the corner about two steps away from the wall. Given how fast he was running and how close he was to the wall when he made the catch, there was no way he could do anything but crash. Along the way, he lost his hat, but held on to the ball. Center fielder Mark Kotsay went over to check on him. After the game, Kotsay told reporters that Byrnes had iced down, something he normally doesn’t do.
Things did not go as well for Byrnes offensively that day. In fact, this was the game that inspired me to start "The Eric Byrnes Pitch Count Report" because he hit the first pitch he saw in the 6th into a rally-killing, inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. (He had also flied out his first time up on the first pitch). Byrnesie left 6 guys on base that day, three of them in scoring position…OUCH!
In the 8th inning, the Giants committed their 5th error of the game when right fielder Alex Sanchez let a Byrnes fly ball glance off his glove. I was sitting in the stands behind Sanchez and saw the play clearly. The ball did not go far from Sanchez’ feet, but the speedy Byrnes, who does NOT take any apparently routine play for granted, was almost at second when the ball came back into the infield. Unfortunately, the more cautious Eric Chavez was on second when Byrnes came to the plate, and he made no attempt to run on Sanchez’ error. Chavvy was still near second as Byrnes approached, so Byrnes, having no place to go, was tagged out about ten feet from second. Instead of having runners at second and third with one out, the A’s had a runner on second with two outs. The play made Byrnes look bad, but it was really Chavez who made the baserunning error; the fly had been hit deep enough to right that he should have been ready to tag and go to third if it had been caught. Had he headed to third as soon as Sanchez missed the catch, Byrnesie would have been safe at second.
Unhappily as this particular play ended for Byrnes, it showed his speed and his heart. Several times last year, I saw descriptions of Byrnes as playing the game "with reckless abandon." I don’t see "reckless abandon"; I see fearlessness and drive. And that’s why I’m wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks cap around Oakland and Berkeley these days.
#4 July 8 – In Chicago, in one of his last appearances with the A’s, Eric got two hits off two right-handers. And not just any two righties: He doubled off All-Star Jon Garland, and then singled off Cliff Politte, one of last year’s top relievers. (In 2005, Politte went 7-1 with an ERA of 2.00). This game was great not only because of Eric’s getting two hits off two tough righties in an away game, but because the day before, he had been pinch-hit for in Toronto when the Blue Jays brought in a righty, even though he had homered earlier in the game. Granted the homer was against a southpaw, but there is such a thing as momentum. On July 9, the A’s announcers said that Byrnes was ecstatic after the two hits the night before. So was I.
#3 August 26 – At Camden Yards, against his former team, the Oakland A’s, Eric bunted for a single, which set up his scoring the Orioles’ only run in a 4-1 loss. This was special because the A’s aren’t into bunting; Byrnes added this skill when he went to Baltimore. The Baltimore radio announcers said that Byrnes had told them before the game that he had been working on his bunting and would bunt if he caught Chavez playing back at third. In the 7th inning, with Chavez playing back, Byrnes attempted a bunt, but missed. Chavvy stayed back. Byrnes bunted the next pitch toward Chavez and was safe at first. Oh, to have been a fly on Chavvy’s shoulder when Byrnesie slid into third a few minutes later. <Heh-Heh-Heh!>
#2 July 31 – Against the eventual World Champion White Sox again, Eric went 3-5 with a homer, all off right-handed pitchers, on my 50th birthday. I don’t have much money, and I’m not a party animal anyway, so I planned a simple day: play some online dominoes with "My Friend, the Yankees Fan," watch the Orioles v. the White Sox on my computer via MLB.TV, and collect my free birthday rental from my local video place. Byrnesie made my day. Thank you, Eric.
#1 August 31 – Eric went 2-4 with a homer at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The homer, a towering fly into the second deck in left, was off a curve ball, thrown by a righty, in an away game. Byrnes’ detractors will tell you he can’t hit righties and he can’t hit breaking stuff. Admittedly, his stats for away games in 2005 were abysmal. But not that day, not that at-bat, against now-Diamondbacks teammate, Miguel Batista. But what was really special for me about this day was the certainty Byrnes had. I knew every time he was going to swing. Even the outs, a fly out and a line out his first two times up, were well hit. If he could carry this level of certainty throughout a season, he would bat .320 easily. August 31, 2005 was "what once was good and could be again" in 2006.
Go Byrnesie! Go Snakes!
Photo of Byrnesie by Cyn "Red Sox Chick" Donnelly, September 2005, Fenway Park.
The new year is getting off on the right foot for me. I start 2006 knowing my favorite player has signed his contract for the season. Eric Byrnes will be the center fielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks. After he was non-tendered by the Orioles, his third team in abysmal, aberrant 2005, I feared that he would end up in Japan, or with one of those minor league contracts with a non-roster invitation to spring training, or worse. Never have I been soooo happy to be soooo wrong! Eric Byrnes had choices. Teams still wanted him. Word out yesterday was that Byrnes chose Arizona in part because they were going to give him the oppportunity to play center field again. (No, I am not changing the name of the blog. It’s still relevant. Byrnes is a right-handed hitter who pulls a lot of his doubles down the left the field line). He came up with the A’s as a center fielder–he can and has played all three outfield positions–and it’s easy to see he has both the speed and the mental aggressiveness one expects at that position.
If Eric Byrnes can possibly get to the ball, he will. That is one of the joys of watching him: his all-out style creates trust that if there’s an opportunity to get the other guy out, he’ll take it. He doesn’t non-chalant; he doesn’t play it safe. He’ll sacrifice his body if he has to. Fortunately, he knows how to do that in a way that avoids the DL.
I am slightly nervous about Byrnes moving back to center full-time because the stats say that he hits better as a left fielder. I don’t know why that is. I keep telling myself that this stat is a mere correlation and that there really should be no cause-and-effect here. Bottom line is that he wanted to go back to center and found a team that also thought this was a good idea. This means he got what he wanted, and that makes me a happy Byrnes fan. Now I just hope that Arizona will have some hitting instructor who can help him get over what was ailing him at the plate in abysmal, aberrant 2005. They must think they do or they would not have signed him.
For me, yesterday was an exhausting day of hourly headlines on flood conditions in the S. F. Bay Area. It be’s that way sometimes for a journalist. Unfortunately, a lot of people around here are starting 2006 with ruined homes and/or businesses. But the good news is that there was little injury and, so far as I have heard, no loss of life. We got one call saying that the headlines were a good service. The rule of thumb is that one call or email about something stands for 99 other people who feel the same way but couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us that. So if 100 people benefited from me doing hourly headlines on flood conditions, it was worth the trouble. And I say trouble only because I’m out of my league doing local and hourly reporting. I’m into the long reports on more universal themes that are done when I say they are done. But I was the one available, like the last pinch hitter in the dugout. So it fell to me to get the job done, even though I don’t usually see much action in the "short and immediate " news game. When it was finally over, I rewarded myself by ordering my Arizona Diamondbacks authentic road cap. I’ll be rooting for them as long as they keep Eric Byrnes.
What some people call New Year’s resolutions, I call goals. Having more money (and the ability to feel comfortable spending it on fun things) is part of the list of goals I made when I got home from the radio station last night. The D’Backs will be in the Bay Area for a dozen games in 2006: 3 against the A’s and 9 against the Giants. (That’s a dozen days during the season Byrnesie can spend at home. That’s a big and good change from the second half of last year! :+) ) One of my goals is to attend all of those games. Attending a dozen games in a season would be an all-time record for me. And that doesn’t even count the possibility that I might want to see any of Barry Zito’s outings or the Giants vs the Mets.
May there be more baseball in 2006 for you as well. Now that it is 2006, spring training will be here before we know it!
Go Byrnesie! Go Snakes!
A healthy and prosperous New Year to us all! Especially to people who take wonderful pix of Byrnesie, like the one on this post that I got from the mlb.com site. It looks the the beginning of the diving catch he made at the Oakland Coliseum on Aug. 15, 2005. I was there. It was wonderful.