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February 27, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Classic

by Joe Sheehan

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This is a terrific e-mail from a reader who didn't like my chat-session answer to a question about the World Baseball Classic. I normally wouldn't run something this long, but it raises some interesting points, and does reflect some of the themes I've been seeing in my inbox about the WBC.

Lighten up! That's my advice that I telepathically transmit over the internet to you every time I hear another disparaging, dismissive comment about the upcoming international tournament, the WBC.

Yes, it's in March instead of a far more logical time like mid-summer or post-World Series. Sure, how could I be surprised if one or so marquee pitchers blow out their arms either during the Classic, or later this season. So write one, maybe two, articles criticizing MLB and the international organizations for a couple poor choices made in WBC-planning. And now, get over it!

The Classic, I assure you, will be the most exciting baseball played in 2006. Baseball's historic legacy can survive a few weeks of being shook up. Change can be very, very good. It will be simply awesome to see players teamed up in brand new teams, less arbitrary than the 32 professional clubs. To contemporary fans, the whole event has the exciting feeling of a Roto-league fantasy draft, with a quick and clean Roto-championship played right now, and when it's all over, instead of five months of hot stove, baseball season starts right away! Plus, with Olympic-style modesty, it won't be coming back around for 4 more years, unlike the Tampa Bay Rays who have 10 scheduled trips to Fenway this year.

Your disinterest sings like a spoiled child who feigns boredom when his friend brings over a cool new toy. This isn't the No Fun League. I'm rooting for a big-time show down between the US and the DR in Arizona. Nothing legitimizes the meaning of the 'World Series' more than actually inviting national teams to compete and showcase their talent. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a Japanese or Latino star break-out and sign his first MLB contract after concluding the WBC.

Final thought, as a die-hard Red Sox fan: During the 'I Live for This' MLB marketing campaign (last summer?), Derek Jeter was the only one who seemed to really mean it. But by 'This' he clearly meant, 'baseball' not 'MLB.' And as the only Yankee this side of Johnny Damon to defy Steinbrenner and prove his allegiance by playing for the USA, well, I think you get where I'm going... Hideki Matsui should be ashamed. Have fun watching him play depleted spring training squads on YES, because you certainly wouldn't be tuning into ESPN come mid-March now would you?

David Ciprian

David has me pegged: I don't like the WBC. What I haven't been able to do is explain, with any clarity, why. I was asked this question three times in three days last week in various media, and each time my answer was garbled, a bit different, and unsatisfactory. Today, I want to distill my objections as best I can. I know that my problems with the WBC are varied, a situation where there's not one overriding reason why it doesn't work, but rather a handful of issues that each chip away at it.

When it was first proposed, it was the timing of the event to which I most greatly objected. Having major-league pitchers throw theoretically highly-competitive innings during a time when they're usually slowly building up to Opening Day struck me as risky and ill-advised. The entire reason spring training lasts seven weeks is so that pitchers can go from long toss to seven innings; throwing that notion out the window and asking the most fragile of entities to be ready to mix it up on March 7 seems risky. Even if there are no health concerns, anything that tampers with pitching arms strikes me as a bad idea in an enviroment where so much rides on such a scarce commodity.

The timing creates other problems. As we've seen, many, many players would rather focus on the upcoming major-league season than take part in the event. Frankly, this is how it should be. There are massive financial and planning investments in these players, and even if you forget the risk of injury, there's a toll taken when a team has to go through a week or three of spring training missing broad swaths of its 25-man roster. (Fans take a hit, too, as a reader who's traveling to Florida next month pointed out: if you're paying full price for spring training tickets, you're less likely to see the stars you're nominally paying to see for at least half a game, and more likely to see scrubs. No WBC discounts this year.)

There's a looking-glass element to this process. Players who have pulled out of the WBC have been generally derided, some mildly, some otherwise, for their decision. What that decision says to me is, "My team, and the season ahead, are more important than this exhibition." That is the correct decision, and one that should be applauded. Those players may be acting in their own self-interest, but by doing so, they're putting the WBC and the major-league season in their proper relative places.

Finally, MLB is choosing to take this signature event up against one of America's other great sporting pastimes, college basketball's March Madness. The first round will be up against conference tournaments, the second against the first round of the NCAA tournament itself, and the semifinals against the second round. I love baseball, I really do, but there's not going to be much comparison in terms of mass public appeal and drama. The WBC is going to be a second-tier event in, as they say in TV, its timeslot.

Of course, the WBC isn't really for me, and not just because baseball will apparently get my interest no matter what it does. It's for everyone else, and by that, I mean the people outside the U.S. Those of us in America (and Toronto), already get to see the best baseball players in the world. They come here because playing baseball in America's major leagues is how you prove you're among the best. For all the complaints about the World Series being ill-named, there's simply no debate about the caliber of the circuits.

The appeal of seeing the game's greatest stars in one tournament just doesn't do anything for me, because I can see them all year long in the tournament I like to call "the season." That's a benefit of being an American who follows MLB. That these players will be wearing the uniforms of their nations doesn't add much to the process for me.

That last bit is important. This event is much bigger outside of the United States, in no small part because the U.S. is the 800-pound gorilla and everyone else wants a shot at beating it. If you're an American who is prone to rooting for Americans, there's really no win here: if the U.S. team takes the title, well, it's the biggest country in the world with the most money and the most mature development path for ballplayers, so it should win. If it loses, it's a huge day for the Dominican or Puerto Rico or Cuba or whoever else takes the title.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that framework, but it does affect how I feel about the event. Not that I tie my patriotism to the success or failure of a baseball team to begin with, but there's not much upside even if I wanted to do so for a week or two. The WBC exists for the Caribbean nations, and to a lesser extent the other countries with a shot.

Well, nominally. See, another problem I have is that the WBC is trying to be two things at once, and failing at both. There is a lot of interest in the event among smaller countries with very good teams, ones with a chance to win. However, the idea is that it's a marketing vehicle designed to spread the game to new places, like South Africa and Italy and China. It's a noble notion, and it's why those nations have been invited to participate. By "participate," I mean get slapped around by countries that actually play baseball. It's not all that clear what watching your national team get destroyed is supposed to do for the popularity of a sport, but that seems to be the approach here. Even with eligibility rules designed to give fringe nations MLB players to root for (Mark Mulder, Netherlands; various American-Italians) and increase the chance of competitiveness, the WBC is likely going to be a success where baseball is already popular, and a dud where it is not.

By including countries to which baseball is essentially foreign, the WBC cheapens the competition. Every U.S./South Africa and Dominican/Italy matchup is a waste of time. A true championship event would have lopped off at least four teams, maybe six, and allowed the nations with some claim to competitiveness a greater opportunity to prove their worth, while providing us all with more competitive baseball.

Of course, that wouldn't have suited the marketing side. The WBC is half of one and half of another, and the two don't add up to a whole. The best baseball players in the world in one event! (Except for the many who have decided to skip it to prepare for the season.) Intense competition by players playing for their countries! (Just ignore the pitch counts and the likelihood that the games will, at times, feel much more like exhibitions, not to mention a very loose definition of "their countries.") How about that U.S./D.R. matchup! (Just one game--potentially--with an awful lot of uninteresting ones on the way there.)

It's funny, but the best thing that could happen for "global baseball development--a true "March Madness" in which three of the random entrants advance while the U.S., the Dominican and Puerto Rico are eliminated--would be an absolute nightmare for the event's sponsors and media partners. This event is crafted to allow the developing nations an illusory chance at a championship, while funneling stars to some televised events at the end of the road.

Now, I've taken to quoting Peter Gammons on the WBC. He points out that this is the first time for the event, and that mistakes will be made. If you look at it that way, with an eye towards improving the event in 2010 and beyond, you can see reasons to be optimstic. A second World Baseball Classic, held in November or December, with a smaller pool, a greater commitment from the players, and perhaps looser restrictions on pitcher usage, would have a lot of edges the current set-up does not have. There would be less conflict with the season, more opportunity for mindshare (with only the NFL to really worry about) and a better chance of seeing high-quality, competitive baseball. The idea of a World Baseball Classic isn't a bad one, but the execution of it this time around has been error-filled.

That's the positive spin, that the next World Baseball Classic will be much better than the first. The first is what's in front of us, however, and it's flawed.

I'll be at two WBC games next Tuesday, and I'm genuinely curious to see what they look like. But I'm not under any illusion that this event is all that it could be, not in 2006.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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