Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The World Baseball Classic

The World Baseball Classic is a marketing ploy. It is an attempt to spread MLB influence into worldwide markets, thus making more money for baseball. All discussions of the event must center around this fact.
It probably seems quite negative and cynical to start the discussion here, but there's a fine line between cynicism and realism. How much you care about the WBC depends mainly upon how you react to this essential truth. Major League Baseball is trying to create a huge event with little or no popular support, and it shows.
The MLB has been trying to work out something like this for a while, but the numerous practical issues always held it in check. The MLB basically made the decision to go ahead with it, hoping the momentum would eventually get all the facts to work themselves out. On one hand, I see their point; the WBC never would have happened if they tried to plan out all the details beforehand. It's much too far-flung a project to get everyone to agree on everything months in advance; it's simpler to present a fait accompli and then iron out the practicalities on the way. On the other hand, it's kind of like selling tickets to a movie that hasn't been made yet.
The practical issues are the major ones plaguing the WBC. The major one was: when should it be? There's a very thin window of opportunity between early November and opening day in late March. You've got Spring Training to deal with too, a pretty big obstacle. It can't really take place in November, or else it will overshadow (or be overshadowed by) the World Series. If it takes place in January, it will be facing off with the NFL playoffs, and if it takes place in March, it will be up against March Madness, two events the WBC couldn't even begin to put a promotional dent in. It was ultimately decided that the WBC would take place in March (specifically March 3-20), during Spring Training. The counterintuitiveness of this move, taking players from Spring Training, is bizarre, and an example of how badly the MLB wants this to happen.
Speaking of the players, that brings me to the second big problem: who will play, how much, and how hard? Gary Sheffield stated early that he wouldn't play for free; it's the kind of uncomfortably sensible thing Sheffield often says. The MLB will be making a mint from the WBC; can they really ask the players to play for nothing but patriotism? And will star players, especially pitchers, really want to risk injury in games that don't really count? Will they play hard, or will it be like a preseason All-Star Game? Pitch count limits have been imposed upon pitchers as a concession to the Players' Union and the individual teams. This means that if the US starts a big rally against Canadian closer Eric Gagne in the 9th inning of a big game, Gagne comes out after x number of pitches, even if he's got a 3-2 count on Jim Thome with the bases loaded. The pitch count limit, a practical necessity, will make for more than one decidedly undramatic pitching changes that the fans will not be happy about.
While most players have expressed their desire to play, many seem to be hesitant. Each day there's new word on who will or won't be playing. After flip-flopping, Alex Rodriguez has agreed to play for the US. But it came after what was essentially a PR campaign to weigh public reaction to his various options. Getting the players involved has been a much thornier issue, and while there are many stars confirmed to participate, it won't be the ultimate All-Star competition many are anticipating.
The third big issue involves the countries invited to participate. The essential problem here is that no one, read, no one outside of the native Dutch wants to see the Netherlands play. Other weak-sisters such as China, Chinese Taipei (don't ask me), South Africa, Australia, and Italy will make the first few rounds either boring games between unknowns or embarassing blowouts (US .vs. South Africa, anyone?).
But then the Bush Administration threw a big wrench in the plans by declining to allow Cuba to participate. While the politics of that move are dubious enough (Cuba is the bad communists, as opposed to those jolly Chinese communists and their freedom of speech and religion), it's a short-sighted political ploy that will only hurt the games more. There has been a good deal of public posturing, with the IBAF (International Baseball Federation, baseball's governing body) threatening that it won't sanction the WBC if Cuba can't play. Whether this would actually stop the WBC is unclear, but I haven't gotten any further word on the Cuba situation.

So basically, there are many ways that the WBC could become an embarassing disaster. Compounding all of this is the decidedly tepid response from American baseball fans, a group not nearly as passionate as their football and basketball counterparts. I don't really know how the WBC is going over in the other participating countries, but it's hard for me to see the WBC succeeding without America embracing it. This article has focused on the negative, yes, but it just seems reasonable to me that the problems far outweighy the potential for success. It would be different if all this were a noble cause worth fighting for, but I'm not anxious to help Bud Selig & Co. get even richer than they are, and that's really all the WBC would do.

Having said that, here's a preview of what the actual event will be (I'll probably watch some of it):

There are 4 pools of 4 countries each. The first round is a round-robin competition, with the top two teams from each pool advancing to the second round. The second round is also round-robin, with the two top teams from both pools advancing to the semifinals. The first-place teams from the two groups will face the second-place teams, with the winners advancing to the finals, March 20 at Petco Park in San Diego.

Here are the 4 1st-round pools, with a list of notable major leaguers scheduled to participate. There is not an official list of who has accepted and who hasn't, so it's still unclear who is actually going to play. Information on the participants is still a bit spotty on the internet:

China: (no one of note)
Chinese Taipei: (no one of note)
Japan: It's still unclear whether or not Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, or other Japanese stars in the MLB will participate. I believe that Matsui has declined, although I'm not sure. A Japanese team without Ichiro would be difficult to fathom, and would lose the attention of most Americans. The Japanese are considered to be favorites in this pool, with their stronger tradition and more advanced league play.
Korea: Hee Seop Choi, Chan Ho Park, Jae Seo, Sun-Woo Kim

Canada: Jason Bay (PIT), Erik Bedard (BAL), Justin Morneau (MIN), Corey Koskie (MIL), Jeff Francis (COL), Chris Reitsma (ATL)
Mexico: Nomar Garciaparra (LA), Esteban Loaiza (OAK), Oliver Perez (PIT), Vinny Castilla (SD), Elmer Dessens (KC)
South Africa: (no one of note)
United States: among others, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay (TOR), Tim Hudson (ATL), Dontrelle Willis (FLA), Andy Pettite (HOU), Brad Lidge (HOU), Billy Wagner (NYM), Derek Jeter (NYY), Chipper Jones (ATL), Derrek Lee (CHC), Alex Rodriguez (NYY), Mark Teixeira (TEX), Lance Berkman (HOU), Barry Bonds (SF), Johnny Damon (NYY), Ken Griffey, Jr. (CIN)
In my opinion, the USA has to be considered favorites. Teams like the Dominican can match their stars, but no one can match the depth. Of course, since each round is 4 games, depth is less important, so there's plenty of room for an upset.

Cuba: None of the Cuban major leaguers will play for them, as they have defected. If Cuba is gone, I can only guess that they will be replaced by someone else, although the cupboard is already a little bare, so to speak.
Netherlands: Andruw Jones, a native of Dutch Curacao, is the 0nly notable player here.
Panama: Carlos Lee (MIL), Bruce Chen (BAL)
Puerto Rico: Carlos Beltran (NYM), Carlos Delgado (NYM), Mike Lowell (BOS), Ivan Rodriguez (DET), Javier Vazquez (CWS), Bernie Williams (NYY) P.R. has to be considered favorites in this pool, as they also have a good many second-line players.

Australia: (no one of note)
Dominican Republic: Ronnie Belliard (CLE), Adrian Beltre (SEA), Bartolo Colon (LAA), Vladimir Guerrero (LAA), Pedro Martinez (NYM), David Ortiz (BOS), Albert Pujols (STL), Manny Ramirez (BOS), Alfonso Soriano (WSH), Miguel Tejada (BAL).
A team very capable of upsetting the US, with a fearsome middle of the order: Tejada-Vladimir-David Ortiz-Albert-Manny.
Italy: Most of the notable Italian players are Italian-Americans who, under international rules, are able to participate. These include David Dellucci (TEX) and Mike Piazza.
Venezuela: Bobby Abreu (PHI), Edgardo Alfonzo (LAA), Freddy Garcia (CWS), Carlos Guillen (DET), Melvin Mora (BAL), Francisco Rodriguez (LAA), Johan Santana (MIN), Carlos Silva (MIN), Omar Vizquel (SF), Carlos Zambrano (CHC)
A real sleeper team.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat interested in the WBC. And I certainly don't intend by this article to dismiss the growing international influence in baseball; I think it's truly fabulous and worth celebrating. But this is no such celebration; I only hope it isn't an abysmal flop.

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