Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts on the WBC

I started writing this the other night with an eye towards the MLB scoreboard as the Netherlands continued to give the Dominican Republic more than they could handle. Unfortunately, I didn't have or ESPN Deportes (the only available broadcasts), so I was limited to the basic numbers detailing the scoreless duel playing out in San Juan. Normally, this sort of attentiveness to a slowly updated boxscore is reserved for Indians games, at which point I realized just how compelling the World Baseball Classic has become.

The inaugural Classic in 2006 may have benefited from the novelty of seeing the first global tournament featuring professional players. The 2009 tournament lacks that newness, but it still feels just as fresh and engaging as before. Granted, I'm probably not representative of the average fan in terms of my interest in baseball (exhibit A: this blog). However, I'd rather watch a competitive international match than a random regular season game between two neutral teams. Why is that?

As an American baseball fan with television coverage limited to NCAA and MLB, the WBC is as close to the international game as I can get. International competition was practically non-existent to the majority of U.S. fans before the WBC. Unless you subscribe to a special sports television package, chances are you won't be seeing much of the Caribbean or Asia Series. Both tournaments boast Major League talent playing for their respective countries but only feature Latin American or East Asian ball clubs. Until recently, the United States, Canada, and other countries did not have a tournament that allowed their professional players to participate. Of the two major venues open to the U.S. and Canada, neither accommodates professional talent.

Baseball has been played in the Pan American games since 1951, but the event fell out of favor with the U.S. media and fans long ago. Plus, Cuba's ability to field professional-caliber players against an amateur field isn't exactly fair. The Cubans have taken 12 of the 15 gold medals awarded for baseball.

Olympic baseball is in danger of disappearing altogether. In what appeared to be a purely political move, the IOC voted to drop softball and baseball from the 2016 Olympics. Part of this decision may lie in the IOC's desire for MLB to suspend its season to provide Pro players the opportunity to attend the Olympics. Obviously, MLB declined. I can't say I blame MLB for snubbing the IOC, it's not like baseball has ever gotten much respect from them in the first place. Unlike hockey, baseball has only been a medal sport since 1992, so the working relationship is not as strong. Also, the consequences of a ML player getting injured away from his team in mid-season would have been too severe for the Commissioner to justify.

Unlike hockey or basketball, the Olympic version of baseball is (was) a hollow representation of the sport and is not a true representation of a country's talent. Sure, the sense of national pride is there anytime Team USA takes the field, but the competition itself is not anywhere near the level of other venues.

The international flavor of the WBC also differs from that of Major League baseball itself. On the one hand, baseball has become so diverse that the 25-man roster of any ML team can have up to five or six-plus countries represented. From Colombia to Taiwan, 18 countries currently boast a player at the Major League level. Baseball has grown from America's national past-time to a truly global sport. The abundance of cultures, nationalities, and playing styles that that have left their mark in the Majors only serves to enrich the sport further.

On the other hand, Pro ball is a business and often lacks the outright commitment and passion evident when national pride is on the line. Instead of playing for a paycheck, players are in it for their country. How often do you see multi-millionaire athletes standing on the dugout steps, clapping and shouting at the top of their lungs like a bunch little leaguers cheering on their teammates? Players tend to wear their competitive spirits on their sleeves in these tournaments. It may be an old cliche, but international play is the ultimate example of playing for the name on the front of the jersey rather than just the one on the back.

Think about it. Do you really think a young pitcher from Latin America cares as much about the Mid-Western city stitched onto his jersey as the fans do? Probably not, though I certainly wouldn't fault him for it. I'm not talking about the commitment and comradery gained from playing for one's teammates or organization, those are two entities that every athlete should feel some attachment to. My point is, most players probably don't have a particularly strong bond with the region their current team happens to play for (this applies to every player, not just those born outside the U.S.). It's not uncommon to hear a free agent heap praise on his old team's hometown, only to bolt for a bigger payday regardless of whatever feigned loyalty he professed.

When that same pitcher wears República Dominicana across his chest, you better believe he feels what the fans feel, only amplified. It's a different level of motivation when your fellow countrymen are the fans cheering in the stands and at home. When that flag is on the sleeve the competitive drive in every player kicks into top gear be it a minor leaguer, journeyman, or All-Star. This is why a match between Japan and Korea rivals a Yanks-Sox game in intensity, why the prized piece of Jake Peavy's memorabilia collection is his Team USA jersey, why the Venezuelan team has endured the disappointment of a nation for three years, and why even an anonymous Dutch team can topple a seasoned Dominican roster that would rival any All-Star team.

None of the events named earlier boast all the elements that give the WBC so much potential. The WBC is the highest quality baseball ever played in a global tournament, combining the drama and skill of the regular season with a determination and enthusiasm normally reserved for October, all on an international stage. In addition to providing fans everywhere with a united rooting interest every four years, the WBC serves as the flagship for MLB's attempt to grow the game in non-traditional locales. The Classic is both a proving ground and spotlight for countries still trying to define their own baseball programs.

This year's games point to significant improvements out of Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands. Italy now has multiple prospects in the low minors and knocked out a Canadian team that almost took down the United States. Australia hung tough with Cuba in a 5-4 loss and beat-down a talented Mexican team in a 17-7, eight inning rout. Of course, the Netherlands stole the show by upsetting the Dominican Republic not once, but twice in the same round. Even if they get knocked out in the next round, those wins will go down as two of the biggest upsets in the history of international play.

The players on the Dominican squad will feel the sting of their elimination for a long, long time. The so-called "Republic of Baseball" is not used to losing, especially to a team with only two active Major League players on its roster compared to 23 for the Dominicans. Manager Felipe Alou meant business following his team's first loss of the tournament: "That was a team that we should've shut out. It was a hard-fought game, but now they are going to brag about having beaten the Dominican Republic."

Shortstop Jose Reyes dismissed the Dutch altogether stating "we're way better than them" following his team's 3-2 loss on Saturday. I doubt anyone would argue with Reyes on this point (even the Dutch players admitted as much), which makes the loss even more shocking. One of the best teams in the tournament simply got out-played and out-hustled by a club with far less raw talent. With a bit of luck, a timely error from the Dominicans, and the simple fact that they wanted it more, the Netherlands pulled off the win.

The real impact will be on public interest in baseball in the Netherlands. The sport itself has been played on the European mainland and the Caribbean islands for some time, but has never experienced a win of this magnitude. According to pitching coach Bert Blyleven (one of four Dutch-born pitchers to reach the Majors) the 11th inning, come-from-behind victory was "as exciting as winning a World Series." The success of the national team should cause a wave of interest among kids looking to pick up the sport, especially in the Caribbean territories where most of the Dutch players are from. With a solid foundation in place, the Netherlands could see a surge in baseball talent in the near future as a direct result of the WBC.

The WBC still has its share of problems to address before it can really take flight. Many of the game's top players declined to participate due to a lack of interest or a legitimate fear of injury prior to Opening Day. MLB will have to tread carefully in how it encourages players to participate in the future. The event will need the draw of players like Pujols, Sizemore, and Sabathia meaning a balance will need to be struck at some point. A better product on the field leads to higher quality games which should continue to attract more fans and ensure the WBC's viability.

The highest priority must still be given to protecting the participants, since no one involved wants to see a team's ace get hurt in an exhibition game, no matter how meaningful it may be.

The timing of the WBC makes it tricky to protect pitchers from injury without significantly handicapping the games themselves. Coaches and pitchers alike haven't exactly been thrilled with the idea of front-loading innings to an already grueling season either. Stricter pitch counts were implemented in 2009 to protect pitchers still making the transition from the offseason to the starting rotation. Moving the event to after the World Series does not seem to be a viable option since there is a heavy risk in overloading an already tired arm at the end of the season. In terms of generating buzz for the sport, holding the WBC as a lead-in to the regular season seems to make the most sense.

Hopefully, the four-year lapse between each WBC will help keep the event fresh and satisfy some of the critics who say it's too disruptive to the regular season.

Finally, fan interest in the U.S. market has to be sustained for MLB to continue running the WBC.

The WBC fills a sort of niche market for American baseball fans; the reality of a professionally staffed "Dream Team" competing against other countries is new to USA baseball. This niche has already been filled in other countries by events like the Asian Series, Caribbean Series, and domestic leagues in Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and elsewhere. Other countries have a league to call their own, populated by native players and cited as a measuring stick and source of pride for a nation's baseball talent. U.S. fans have always had a different perspective on baseball, since the primary league people follow here consists not just of the best players from the United States, but around the world.

I think the WBC has the potential to evolve into the premier championship in baseball, second only to the MLB playoffs. If an event like this can produce great games with a playoff atmosphere in March (the Canada - U.S. match on Saturday was epic) and inspire more people around the world to play or follow baseball, I think that's more than enough reason to keep it alive. The WBC may not be perfect, but if this year's surprises are any indication, baseball fans have a lot to look forward to down the road.

1 comment:

Astros Tickets said...

I like the outlook of the WBC also. I don't think there's any way the Dominican team will ever stay down for long. They've got lots of native talent to draw from.