In its purest form, the World Baseball Classic could be a great thing. Not just good, but great. The idea of the best players representing their countries for the chance to legitimately stake a claim to “World’s Best” is fascinating, intriguing — all sorts of thought-provoking. Unfortunately, in its current format, it’s a shell of what it could be.
In my opinion, the WBC, first and foremost, is a marketing strategy by MLB, much like the silly “fan cave” and numerous other campaigns. All of their plans and procedures revolve around that concept. I think the potential good of the program — selling baseball in other countries, expanding the “reach” of the game, healthy competition between countries, showcasing player’s heritages — are all by-products of selling prime advertising time in March.
That said, there is good that does come out of it. For those players that participate, it’s to their credit that they are taking the play on the field seriously and that they seem to really have a sincere appreciation for representing their home countries. The actual level of play on the field has been decent, with some spectacular mixed in. And the ratings and social media aspect of the WBC can’t be overlooked. It’s a boon to MLB Network and related affiliates.
Whether or not the WBC is expanding baseball’s “reach” in other countries is a debate to be had down the road. But since this is the third WBC (covering seven years), if it were the case wouldn’t we surely have seen more Dutch, Italian or Brazilian minor and major leaguers by now? Yes, I know it takes a long time for a sport to gain in popularity enough to build programs to develop a talent base that could send players from those countries to compete for big league jobs.
Despite the foothold that soccer has in youth sports in America, it still is a backwater compared to countries, leagues and programs around the world. If America can’t develop more world-class soccer, how can smaller countries hope to compete in baseball.
Wouldn’t we have seen more backlash for the Olympics dropping baseball as a sport?
No, the socio-impact is far secondary. It’s not the reach of “baseball” that they’re trying to expand, it’s the reach of “MLB Baseball” and its marketing and broadcast arms. This isn’t selling “the game”, it’s selling product.
Besides all that, if it’s just boiled down to baseball, this wouldn’t be a competition at all. Much like the NBA “Dream Team” that took over the Olympics, if each country were allowed to truly supply their best teams, no one could touch Team USA. Sure, vagaries happen in a round-robin, one-game format. In a series, if Team USA put up Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, David Price and R.A. Dickey against anyone, it wouldn’t be a competition.
As it stands, most countries have minor leaguers filling out the batting order and rosters. Just take a look at the pitchers Puerto Rico sent up against Team USA. Not a big leauger in the bunch. Not even close. Classic? Sounds like another day at Spring Training to me.
What would I change? First, obviously, the timing. I hate that it disrupts spring training. And it’s apparent the way American players decline the invitation to play that most big leaguers do too. Just look at Team USA. No Mike Trout. No Bryce Harper. No Stephen Strasburg. The list goes on. If the idea is to really settle it on the field, shouldn’t it be a priority to field the best teams possible?
And it’s not just Team USA either. Felix Hernandez won’t pitch for Venezuela. Yu Darvish and Ichiro both declined invitations to play for Japan. The list is almost endless.
To illustrate just how ridiculous some players view the WBC, Russell Martin — a catcher by trade — left Team Canada because they wouldn’t let him play… shortstop.
My proposal: Play the thing in November, right after the World Series, when attention on baseball is its highest all year. Yes, it further competes against the NFL. Yes, it complicates the winter leagues in the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. Yes, you’d still have players backing out to spend that time with their families, etc. But MLB used to have travelling teams tour Japan and Korea during November in the past. It’s not like it’s a completely novel idea.
What’s more, it would lead to better baseball. Members of Team USA that didn’t make the playoffs could take a couple of weeks off right after the season ends, then reconvene two weeks before the WBC to get together for practices. It would be like a two-week stay on the D.L. for everyone, a chance to freshen up before going back at it again. Better than ramping up to play competitive baseball the first two weeks of March. You might lose a player or two from the World Series teams, but it’s better than the mass avoidance going on now.
Playing in November would also mitigate the injury factor. If a player gets hurt in March, there’s a good chance that will affect his team during the regular season. Should a November injury occur, said player has the off-season to heal before the next spring training.
Next, I’d tighten the eligibility rules. If you, your parents, or grandparents were born in the country, you’re eligible to play for that country. That’s it. Personally, each of my eight great-grandparents were of different home countries, so I’d be eligible for eight different teams under the current rules. That should be tightened up.
I’d change the run differential rule that led to the Canada-Mexico brawl. The round-robin aspect is fine, so just make head-to-head the tiebreaker for two teams. If three teams are tied, flip coins or something else. It’s better than someone trying to run up the score, especially since they have a mercy rule to limit embarrassing scores. How can you have a mercy rule, yet your first tiebreaker is run differential?
To those currently enjoying the World Baseball Classic, please by all means continue to enjoy. There’s some decent baseball to be witnessed. The pageantry of pitting countries against one another makes for interesting story lines — if you can get by the incessant and unnecessary jingoism being perpetuated by MLB Network. I think they could do better than settling for ratings bonanza in March if they were really interested in determining a true “World Champion”.