WBC: Still a BAD Idea
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!