March 10, 2009
While watching Panama get shut out on 11 hits over the weekend-that's in two games, folks-I started thinking about the WBC in a different way. The solutions I've proffered have been primarily about timing in an effort to garner greater participation among players, but I'm wondering if maybe I've been running at the problem from the wrong direction.
Let's make something clear: I've become a big fan of the event. I was skeptical three years ago, then swayed by the excitement of the two games I attended, by the love of baseball that I saw. I watched many of the first-round games over the weekend, a substantial statement for someone who is also a fan of March Madness. There was some terrific baseball, competitive baseball, high-quality baseball, with Canada nearly upsetting the United States, and the Netherlands actually pulling off the surprise over the Dominican Republic before giving Puerto Rico all it could handle. I'm no longer agnostic about the WBC; I want it to be a huge success.
The biggest problem facing the event is that it's trying to be two things, and those two things exist in conflict with one another. MLB wants to use the WBC to promote baseball around the world, and in particular in emerging markets. It's a marketing event, which is why China, Taiwan, and Italy, among others, are represented. There are no qualifying events for the WBC; nations are invited to participate, and not entirely based on their baseball prowess-any number of Central and South American countries would be more qualified than China or South Africa on that score. Baseball would like to sell jerseys and MLB.tv subscriptions worldwide, but they're focused on selling them where there's the most discretionary income.
However, by including the under-qualified nations, the event as a whole is weakened. There are a bunch of uncompetitive or marginally competitive games, and nearly half of the field had no realistic chance to advance to the second round. Now, if you compare that to the NCAA basketball tournament or the World Cup, you might reach a similar conclusion, but the difference is that the teams in those events have gone through a qualifying stage. They've done something to get there, even if that something is as little as win three straight games at the end of a lousy season. The WBC's lesser programs got there... by having some kind of baseball program and being favorable to MLB's end goals.
Take a look at the results so far. China, Taiwan, Panama, and South Africa have combined for two wins in two WBCs, those being China over Taiwan this year, and the reverse in 2006. Those teams have no wins over the other 12 teams in the field, and as much as I enjoyed South Africa's upset bid back in '06, we could go a very long time before they win a game in this thing. Those four teams have added very little to the event, but having 16 teams versus 12 drives the four-pool structure that is at the root of the WBC's problems.
What if the WBC had just 12 teams? Frankly, I'm not convinced that Australia and Italy are bringing a lot to the table, but their wins over the last few days have scuppered the argument for including them in the previously mentioned group of the least worthy. A 12-team, two-pool WBC would trade off a bunch of blowouts of teams that have no chance to advance in the event and haven't qualified for it for more games between competitive teams. Right now, we're playing for three weeks in the hopes of maybe getting a couple of great matchups at the end of the process. If you instead set it up like the Olympics, you could have more entertaining matchups, more drama, and more high-quality baseball.
What I like about this plan is that it condenses the schedule without providing less baseball. To bring it back to the Olympics, you'd have two six-team groups playing a five-game round-robin over six days. Eight teams, four from each group, would advance to a bracket, playing as many as three games to determine a champion. WBC teams currently are guaranteed three games, and the contenders six, with a maximum of eight. In this format, everyone would get five games, with a max of eight.
You could play this schedule in as few as eight days, but realistically, it would take 14. You play five games in six days in the qualifying round, held at two locations, most likely outside of the US. Take two days off, and have the final eight travel to one location for the quarterfinals, held over consecutive days. Take two more days off, then play the semis and final on consecutive days.
With the entire event down to 14 days, you can start it as late as March 26 or so, which means you have pitchers just about ready for the season, and you've dodged the craziest parts of March Madness. You should end up with greater participation, and the event runs almost right up to Opening Day; April 6 this season, using a schedule that includes no doubleheaders. If the WBC runs from March 26 through April 10, you can begin the season a week later on April 13, and build a schedule that includes three home doubleheaders per team to make up the lost dates. Mandate that one of them be a traditional doubleheader. If the World Baseball Classic is going to be the key event in the baseball calendar that Bud Selig wants it to be, he should be able to sell his charges on sacrificing two or three dates once every four seasons.
Now, I don't mean to completely disenfranchise the teams left out of the event. In fact, my vision is that the eight quarterfinalists from the previous WBC are guaranteed spots in the event, and the other four are qualified for. I won't pretend to have a plan for the logistics of this, but the World Cup manages to pull it off, and I don't think organizing qualifiers for four slots among the maybe 12 teams that would participate would be a barrier, and eventually, you'll find that China, and maybe even South Africa, are reaching the big dance the old-fashioned way.
I'm excited about what this plan could mean for the WBC. It's already a fun, entertaining event with so many major leaguers not taking part, and not enough games among the competitive teams. By altering the structure and the schedule, you'd almost certainly get a higher percentage of the game's greatest players involved, and those players would be squaring off more frequently and at close to regular-season readiness.
MLB has already shown a willingness to work on the WBC format. With these changes, the WBC would make a huge leap forward on the path to establishing itself as baseball's World Cup.