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September 26, 2012

Punk Hits

A Not Altogether Helpful Primer to the World Baseball Classic

by Ian Miller

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Apparently there is a thing called the World Baseball Classic. This is not the same thing as the World Series, which determines the champion of Major League Baseball. The fact that the word “World” appears in the title of each event is confusing, but these are two separate competitions. This essay will attempt to explain the World Baseball Classic so you can speak about it intelligently if asked.

WHAT THE WBC IS
The World Baseball Classic is not even sure what it is. There’s an About page on its website, but that page is blank! How can we attempt to define an event that cannot—or will not—even define itself?

Wikipedia is slightly more helpful in this regard. It defines the WBC as “an international baseball tournament” sanctioned by various bodies, including the International Baseball Federation and Major League Baseball. Which seems additionally weird that MLB would allow this thing to be called “World” anything, what with the potential confusion and inherent branding challenges. (Maybe they should rename the World Series, though, because it’s really the “United States of America Series Plus the Blue Jays.” And, let’s be honest, how likely is it that the Blue Jays will participate in the World Series in any of our lifetimes?)

WHAT THE WBC ISN’T
The World Baseball Classic is none of these things, except for the third-to-last entry on the list, which is the thing that it is.

HOW DO THEY DECIDE WHO GETS TO PLAY FOR WHICH TEAM
This is possibly the most confusing element of the entire megillah. You probably saw some headlines last week about the possibility of Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler playing for Team Israel should Israel advance (it didn’t). My exhaustive research (Googling) reveals that both Spain (who advanced) and Israel (who did not) used “heritage picks” to fill out their rosters. For Israel, anyone with a Jewish grandparent was eligible for consideration. This is basically the baseball equivalent of the Law of Return.

The Spanish version of the Israeli Law of Return is even more tenuous: virtually anyone with Spanish heritage is eligible to play. This has been the subject of some controversy: according to Baseball-Reference, “Spain has been criticized … for relying almost exclusively on Venezuelan, Cuban, American and Dominican players rather than … native Spaniards.” Meanwhile South Africa and France have fielded teams entirely of native-born players. I’m not sure how that’s fair, exactly, but I guess Spain was unhappy with not qualifying for the WBC in either 2006 or 2009, and with missing the Olympic cut in 1996, 2000, and 2004. (I’m being flip about this, of course, but I don’t really have an issue with it. The Spanish baseball powers that be are trying to create excitement for a “new” sport that doesn’t have much traction. I get it. But it still sucks for France and South Africa, who had their national asses handed to them.)

WHO PLAYS WHOM IN THIS THING OR WHAT: ALSO PROFOUNDLY CONFUSING
If you have the MLB Network, you may have heard of or even seen some “qualifier games.” I watched one of these yesterday; Canada trounced Germany, 11-1. I was home sick from work with the stomach flu and had a 103-degree fever, however, so my account of the game cannot be considered trustworthy. I seem to recall Larry Walker hovering over the field and bursting into flame, like a portly, goateed Human Torch. But this may have been the fever.

In any case, the qualifying rounds pit 16 teams against one another in pools of four teams. Spain and Canada have already advanced in the two European pools (huh?), with the South American and Asian pools scheduled for November. The winners of the four qualifier pools will compete against the top 12 teams of the 2009 WBC: Australia, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Venezuela. The actual Classic will take place in March 2013 in various venues in the U.S.—sort of.

HOW DID THEY PICK THESE VENUES ANYWAY
I realize they needed warm-weather venues that already had world-class baseball stadia
(hence the inclusion of spring training sites in both Florida and Arizona), but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with three wackier State-side locations than the ones the WBC has selected. So much weird shit happens in Florida that the state has its own tag on fark.com. Arizona’s residents are so fiercely independent that they refuse to adopt Daylight Savings Time just because. You’re not the boss of them, and they want you to know it! And San Francisco, where the finals will be held, well... the less said about that place, the better. I live there, and I’m here to tell you, the things that go on here would make the city fathers of Sodom blush. That said, I’m looking forward to attending a number of these games at AT&T Park, and participating in the attendant debauchery.

SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW
I wish I knew. As mentioned above, there are still two more qualifier rounds to be played. Eventually there will be a field of 16 teams, which will include Japan. (It almost didn’t include Japan.) Pool play will begin in early March and conclude in San Francisco in the middle of March. Japan will probably win, because Japan has won 100 percent of the previous World Baseball Classics.

Perhaps other national teams should adopt the “heritage picks” model in an attempt to “level the playing field.” Maybe you should be allowed to play for the Netherlands if you can point to it on a map, or play for Australia if you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee. Otherwise Japan will win again, and nobody wants to see that. Japan takes the “fun” out of “fundamentally sound baseball.” Give me three-run dingers anytime.

For actual facts about the WBC, without the fever-induced hallucinations, visit worldbaseballclassic.com. But not the About page, because that may cause existential angst.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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