Two out of three ain’t bad.
The World Baseball Classic is correct about its international nature and the sport involved. But the tournament is a long way from being a sterling standard on these shores, where our sporting attention each spring is drawn to college basketball and NFL free agency.
We’re not wired for high-stakes, competitive baseball in March, when we’re accustomed to players jogging in the outfield during exhibition games.
The WBC, held every four years by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, is a great idea in theory but hindered by obstacles in practice. Namely, the timing is bad and options aren’t better. Organizing a global competition with baseball’s best is problematic when six months of the year – seven if you count the postseason – are off-limits.
Team USA begins play Friday night against Colombia at Marlins Park. Saturday’s game against the Dominican Republic is sold out. The atmosphere in Miami’s Little Havana will be as raucous and festive as international athletics get.
But the passion doesn’t carry over to the event as a whole, not with so many big-name stars sitting out and so many fans supporting those decisions. Few players turn down invites and explain their reasoning as bluntly as the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard.
“Because I am a Met,” he told reporters last week. “Nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or won a World Series playing in the WBC.”
Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer accepted an invite in November but withdrew in January with an injured knuckle. Teammate Tanner Roark is scheduled to pitch in Saturday’s game. He said he feels great and isn’t worried about the WBC potentially having a negative effect on his season.
Five other Nationals in major league camp are participating, including second baseman Daniel Murphy (USA), catcher Jhonatan Solano (Colombia), left-hander Enny Romero (Dominican Republic) and pitchers Oliver Perez and Rafael Martin (Mexico).
“Should be a lot of fun,” Murphy told reporters. “Really looking forward to playing with some of the best players in Major League Baseball. Not only with them, but against them. The rest of the teams seem to be truly talented right now, so should be a lot of fun. I never had the opportunity to wear red, white and blue, and represent my country.”
Baseball wants the WBC to be its version of soccer’s World Cup, an admirable and ambitious goal. Whether it’s attainable is questionable. International football has a few advantages that can’t be matched, namely its status as the world’s most popular sport, its history and its calendar.
The World Cup typically is held after most European clubs have finished their seasons, thereby avoiding a conflict and making it easy for top stars to participate. And there’s no worry about pitchers blowing out an arm or being overworked when they’d otherwise be easing into spring training.
Evidence of a link doesn’t exist, but Edinson Volquez, Jake Peavy, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scot Shields were among roughly 20 pitches hampered by injuries in the months after appearing in the 2009 WBC. The endeavor isn’t totally risk-free for position players, either; then-Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez required thumb surgery after getting hurt in the 2013 WBC final.
This isn’t to suggest that Team USA is devoid of name players. In addition to Murphy, manager Jim Leyland’s roster includes Baltimore’s Adam Jones, Cleveland’s Andrew Miller, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton and San Francisco’s Buster Posey.
But it’s nothing like the inaugural event in 2006 when the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez were on the team. The modern-equivalent would be names like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, all of whom respectfully declined.
“The U.S. position players, their roster is pretty darn strong,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Monday before a WBC game in South Korea. “You’re never, ever going to have every guy. There’s going to be some guys who are injured, guys who don’t want to play for some reason.”
Manfred said the WBC is “vital to the internationalization of the game” and he’s committed to the quadrennial tournament. Since more than 25 percent of major leaguers are from foreign countries, and Olympic competition isn’t an option, the WBC is the only opportunity to see players divvied up by nationality.
That might get fans excited in places like Japan (a two-time winner) and Dominican Republic (the defending champion). But international play hasn’t drawn much interest over here, especially when the home team’s best showing in the previous three Classics has been fourth place.
MLB is undeterred.
“The tournament remains very much in the early innings of development,” MLB vice president Chris Park told reporters last week. “Our ultimate ambition is to watch and supervise this tournament as it matures into a truly global platform for our game and a real competitor with the top international tournaments around the world.”
Sit back and relax.
Like baseball itself, that’s going to take a while.