January 15, 2009
For some time now, we've been treated to a daily update on which MLB players will participate in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, which kicks off in just seven weeks.
Now, I started out as a vocal opponent of the tournament, objecting to the first event primarily on the grounds of its timing, but also its relevance and entertainment value. I came around on the concept after attending some of the opening-round games in Phoenix and seeing the enthusiasm of the crowds and the participants. The WBC is a really good idea, one that can bring baseball fans together every four years the way soccer's World Cup does for its global fan base every six. It can grow baseball's popularity in nations new to it, which can only be good for the long-term health of the game.
In practice, though, the WBC remains hampered by its spot on the calendar. Slotted in early March, the WBC can never be the priority for most of the best players in the tournament outside of Cuba and, perhaps, Japan. Because of the unique role of "pitcher" in baseball, because of the length of the baseball calendar, and because of the massive amount of money invested in the very best baseball players in the world, the WBC is never going to be a baseball World Cup. Short of suspending the MLB and NPB seasons for a month in June-and we're six or seven recessions away from that happening-you cannot schedule the WBC in a way that allows all of the best players to participate freely. The best you might do is schedule the thing for late March and early April, pushing the opening of the MLB season back two weeks and slotting some doubleheaders to make up for it (or, more radically, playing a 154- or 148-game schedule in those years). Of course, that involves a level of sacrifice few owners are going to countenance. When it comes to the WBC, it's the players alone who are expected to be patriots.
For the MLB players who comprise the US roster, as well as the MLB players and prospects who make up the bulk of other rosters, the March tournament is not more important than preparation for the MLB season. This is particularly true as you move up the MLB food chain, and is reflected in the decisions that players have to make: focus entirely on the upcoming championship season, for which you're being handsomely compensated, or alter preparations to pitch in an exhibition and risk injury or ineffectiveness once the regular season begins.
Take Johan Santana, for example. The Mets are paying him $20 million this year to be their #1 starter as they try to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2006, coming off of two straight heartbreaking finishes. He's kind of important to their chances. Following a season in which he may have been the best starter in the NL, Santana underwent minor knee surgery, and as February approaches, he is unsure as to whether he will pitch in the WBC. This isn't entirely his decision-the Mets will have a say-but it's indicative of the choices the players have to make. With all due respect to Venezuela, Johan Santana's first loyalty should be to the Mets. I would not question Daisuke Matsuzaka's patriotism, but his first thought needs to be about the Red Sox. Matt Holliday isn't any less an American for passing on the red, white, and blue to wear the green and gold.
The WBC is going to be the pinnacle for Cuba and its team, because it's their only chance to play against major leaguers. It will be important to Japan and its players, mostly non-MLB players, because that's the second-best professional league in the world. It will no doubt be important to the citizens, the baseball fans, of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Puerto Rico, because you always want to see if your guys are better than their guys, especially in something as much a part of the culture as baseball is in those places. In the biggest baseball market in the world, though... WBC, they're just not that into you. Baseball fans in the US are fans of their teams. Given a choice between seeing our boys on the field for their country in March and seeing them on the field for our favorite team in October, 99.9 percent will choose the latter.
Is that the choice? I can't say for sure, and I submit that no one really can. What's an acceptable risk, anyway, of injury or diminished performance? One percent? Two percent? Twenty percent? Does it vary by talent level, by salary, by position, or by franchise? I don't have good answers to any of these questions, which is why I think there is no bad decision to be made by players, and why I think each and every one of them should be above criticism when it comes to the choice they make.
So don't begrudge Santana, or Josh Hamilton, or Nick Markakis, or anyone else who chooses to pass on the tournament. It's not that they're rejecting their country; it's that they're putting the WBC in its proper place, which is behind MLB.