added 3/9/2006 by Scott Barzilia
The World Baseball Classic is finally here. Most baseball fans have to contain their yawning as they change the dial back to their hometown nine. Yet, some fans find the classic exciting and I don’t want to rain on their parade. There are some exciting elements to it. Seeing international rivals like Japan and Korea go against each other is fun and you have to know the Dominican Republic will be the target of everyone south of the United States.
Yet, this series has a number of issues that must be resolved if we are going to see a second World Baseball Classic in four years. Like many of Bud Selig’s proposals, the broad plan seems okay until you peel underneath the veneer. Here is a rundown of some of the concerns going into this year’s classic.
Every major sport that has international competitions (soccer, hockey, basketball) struggles to answer the timing question. Each of these sports has come up with different answers because their needs and issues are different. Soccer has the World Cup in the middle of the season, but MLS continues to play games because they can’t cut off their source of revenue. Hockey interrupts the season during the Olympics because so many of their players are gone. Also, they figure the Olympics to be a good stage to promote their sport.
On the other hand, the NBA doesn’t lose any season time to the Olympics. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, they don’t have the issue of delaying the season or losing their stars during the season. On the other hand, many of the stars decline to participate because they need the time off to recuperate. Of course, none of those sports have the quandaries that baseball has.
It doesn’t take a great deal of effort for a player to tie up his high tops and shuffle off to the basketball court. Presumably, the superstars are working out and playing during the off-season anyway. Pitchers in baseball have to shut down so they don’t spend their arm working out in the off-season. So, a winter classic is problematic for reasons other than weather. Simply put, pitchers aren’t going to be ready or willing to perform.
If you move the classic to the middle of the season you end up lengthening a baseball season that already appears to be teetering closer to November. Managers are already worried about how many innings their pitchers are pitching without adding three weeks worth for a baseball classic. Managers in the classic would be tempted to let starters go the distance if the classic were held during the season. Yet, teams shut it down for several days during the all-star break. Adding two and a half weeks then might not be a bad idea to some.
The final time of year that could be used is that October-November period after the World Series. Players are in good physical condition from the season and they would have ample time to rest for the following season. The weather is still okay in most regions of the country and you’d probably have less of a problem with players dropping out. However, baseball minds would have to tackle the question of whether this would seem too much like the NFL’s Pro Bowl. Football fans collectively sleep their way through that affair.
All in all, the primary problem with any event like this is that there is really no good time to do it. Rosters for the countries in the western hemisphere started out looking like all-star teams, but quickly dwindled with every defection. Al Leiter replaced C.C. Sabathia on the U.S. roster. Leiter had a nice career, but if he pitches for a big league team this year it will be a shock. His story is similar to a lot of stories as countries scramble to fill roster holes.
Even more difficult than the timing question is the question of legitimacy. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to picture Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, the U.S., the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela being competitive with only native baseball players and citizens being allowed to play. Countries like China, China Tapei, Korea, the Netherlands, Panama, South Africa, Italy, and Australia are a considerable stretch.
For instance, everyone is aware that Philip Barzilla is my cousin. His story is likely similar to Mike Gallo and Mike Piazza for that matter. His parents weren’t born in Italy. Heck, his grandparents weren’t born in Italy. In fact, I don’t think Philip has ever been to Italy. As much as I’m enjoying watching him have this opportunity, I have to wonder what in the heck he is doing pitching for a country he has no formal ties to. Yes, obviously Barzilla is an Italian name, but why not include a German, English, or French team? We can find enough players with German, English, or French surnames.
The end result is that there are only five or six teams that have any prayer of winning. When you look at the Italian roster you see luminaries like Tony Fiori. If Fiori couldn’t make the Astros roster a few years back, how is he going to be able to get out of a jam against the Dominican Republic or Cuba? If he is one of the better pitchers that country has then what in the heck are they doing there?
One Man’s Opinion
Before we can tackle the problems of the World Baseball Classic we must remember why it exists in the first place. The Olympics removed baseball as a medal sport because there weren’t enough countries participating (among other reasons). So, what Bud Selig and the fellas decided to do was to manufacture interest by allowing countries without native big league players to claim some for their own.
The Caribbean World Series has long been the standard for off-season exhibition success. The fans in those countries take it seriously and the players from those countries achieve almost god-like status. I don’t consider myself an expert as people seem to think I do. I certainly don’t want Bud Selig’s position, but as an ardent fan of baseball I do have a few suggestions.
First, let’s eliminate all of the fringe countries that have no chance and have an eight team tournament. The World Cup in soccer does this by forcing teams to qualify for the tournament. The World Baseball Classic could do the same. Having only two pools of four would allow the tournament to end a week sooner. Suddenly, the scheduling issues are not as important.
I do agree that Spring Training is the best time to play this tournament, but have each country’s players report directly to that country’s camp instead of to their big league team. Pitchers and catchers could report a week or two sooner if they have qualified to pitch for a team. That way, the pitchers might be able to throw more innings in the WBC and the risk for injury would subside some. More importantly, it would look like real baseball.
Unlike many of Bud Selig’s ideas, I find the World Baseball Classic to be an interesting one. However, the powers that be need to think about the issues surrounding timing and residency so that it can become a permanent fixture in the baseball landscape. As for myself, I will likely pay more attention to the Astros, but if Italy’s on the tube I’ll tune in.