March 17, 2006
We should be embarrassed.
These so-called "stars" couldn't be bothered to perform for their country in the World Baseball Classic, declining to participate under the guise of nagging injury and concern for the upcoming season. Without these players, certainly among the best the U.S. could put on the field, Team Red, White and Blue is now No Team at All, disbanded after last night's 2-1 loss to Mexico. The defeat eliminates the country that claims baseball as its national pastime, and with that, casts a pall over that pastime darker than any other I can think of.
How, in these times when America is under attack from all corners of the globe, its ideals treated as punchlines and its soldiers fighting and dying for the freedom of other nations, can these young men who make their fortune thanks in part to the people of this country be so sanguine about representing it on the highest stage? Is patriotism dead, at least among the members of the MLBPA?
I should hold a special place in my dark heart for Alex Rodriguez, the Dominican-American Hamlet whose waffling on his personal home team was the background for his inability to play the hero in last night's final inning. With a chance to finally perform on a big stage, to shed the labels that he has so richly earned, he instead drew a measly walk, passing the buck to the defensive-minded, offensively challenged Vernon Wells. Wells, you might know, doesn't make $25 million a season, doesn't have MVP awards on his shelf, and doesn't strike terror in the hearts of pitchers. Wells may have grounded into the WBC-ending double play, but it was Rodriguez's spitting the bit that set up the moment. Moreover...
...OK, I obviously can't keep that routine up any longer. Maybe I'll never get to be on "Around the Horn."
The fact is, my nationality aside, I'm more than a little pleased that the U.S. team didn't make the WBC semifinals. I like the chaos for one, and that the carefully crafted marketing campaign will now be without most of its familiar faces. I think the U.S.'s loss--and quite frankly, its disappointing showing throughout the tournament--highlights both the good and the bad of the event. There should be the possibility of upsets in an event like this; upsets are what make the NCAA tournament so wonderful, and certainly MLB is aiming for that kind of passion in the WBC.
Baseball doesn't work like other sports, and the U.S. going 3-3 with two close wins over baseball nations and another over South Africa, isn't as unexpected as you might think. It's March, for one, and it's perfectly normal for a pitcher like Dontrelle Willis to be working through some things, be they mechanical or physical. If he'd performed the way he did over the last couple of weeks in West Palm Beach against the Nationals, no one would have thought anything of it. Heck, if he has two bad starts against the Mets in June, he won't be analyzed the way his WBC performance was.
With the U.S. team gone, the endgame of the WBC may not generate the buzz, the ratings or the money that it would have otherwise. In the end, though, that the U.S. didn't advance will be a boon for the WBC and for global baseball. Slaying the dragon is always a better story than the one about the dragon who obliterated the village, and this story is going to be told, around the world, until the next WBC pitch is thrown in 2009. This is what will grow baseball, not the U.S./Dominican Republic final this tournament was designed to create.
There are people who will pick apart decisions made by Buck Martinez, and who will slam individual players for their performance or their absence. Ignore all of that. The rules that govern postseason play in MLB are also what govern the WBC, with its game-play tweaks and its tiebreakers and its vanishingly short season. It is, as ever, designed to produce a champion, not to determine who is best. You simply can't reach conclusions about anyone's performance in the timeframe allotted, especially when you consider the timing of the games. It's still spring training for these players, no matter how many people are crammed into the press box.
The World Baseball Classic has been a rousing success, much to my surprise. Don't worry that the guys playing in San Diego this weekend won't be as familiar to you as they might have been. Instead, enjoy the baseball, the passion and the pageantry, and look forward to an even better event--with the holes repaired--in 2009.
A couple of people asked for my Final Four, given my recent coverage of college basketball. I have Connecticut, Duke, UCLA and Boston College going to Indianapolis, with UConn beating Duke for the title.
The request for "your guys" sparked a massive amount of e-mail, and we'll devote a day next week to leafing through the best responses. Just some great feedback, and a number of names that made me really stand up and take notice.