Congratulations to the World Champion Dominican Republic, the best team in baseball! Ok, so no one actually believes that the WBC winner is the best team, but that doesn’t mean that the Classic isn’t good for baseball.
Putting baseball on a national stage is first and foremost the best part of the Classic. This year’s tournament received record ratings in Japan and Puerto Rico and did a lot to showcase the international stars of the game.
74% of TVs on in Puerto Rico tuned in to final moments of PR’s #WBC win over Japan Monday.
— MLB (@MLB) March 19, 2013
More important than ratings, though, is the passion the game creates. Baseball was eliminated as an Olympic sport in 2008, and since that time the Classic has stepped in to fill the void. The “World Series” is a bit of a misnomer, as American baseball only has one Canadian team. However, the best players from around the world want to play in the MLB because they get to face the best competition and get paid the most money. While many of the players on the non US teams looked familiar, that they were playing for national pride heightened the meaning for many. The best part about this event is the passion it inspired in both the fans and players. American baseball is not the only style played, and the Latin fans and players showed a passion for every at bat that I haven’t witnessed in American baseball except in the playoffs.
I understand that the WBC doesn’t have the best players, as some are afraid of injury or afraid that it will affect their normal routines in preparing for the season. This is the normal argument, but it just isn’t true. Jayson Stark writes that players playing who played in the WBC were 1/2 as likely to suffer an injury as those that did not. With this knowledge, the best players have no excuse not to represent their country. If the US filled out a roster with Verlander, Kershaw, Trout and Posey you mean to tell me you wouldn’t be waving the flag and cheering with everything you’ve got? That’s a tournament I’d like to see.
Baseball is a great game that has a huge international presence. While it isn’t anywhere near soccer in terms of world popularity, the sheer number of foreign born athletes in the MLB shows the ability for the sport to grow and develop players outside the United States. At the start of the 2012 season, 28.4% of players on Opening Day rosters were born outside the US. And with players like Roberto Clemente, Fernando Valenzuela, and Ichiro decorating the game’s past, there is an incentive for Bud Selig to seek development of international talent, both for the betterment of the game and his pocketbook. With an excellent model in the World Cup, which even manages to get the US excited about soccer, and removal from the Olympic games, baseball can pull on the national pride of its fans to create a similar tournament. Yet the current setup is a disaster. The World Baseball Classic is a great idea that is horrendously executed.
The biggest and most obvious flaw within the WBC is its timing. Taking place only weeks after pitchers and catchers report, the WBC forces players to enter a playoff mentality without even getting accustomed to a regular season game. With rusty players, there is going to be a large discrepancy in player output. The March start time for the WBC also puts MLB teams in an awkward position. Teams want to respect their players’ wishes to play for their home country, but at the same time they don’t want to lose their stars to injury not even 30 days before the start of the season.
Unfortunately, this happened this year as the Mets lost their one remaining notable player, David Wright, to an injured rib cage. He is currently questionable for Opening Day. The Dodgers refused to let their ace, Clayton Kershaw, partake in the WBC this past year in an overprotective measure to prevent any residual inures from flaring up. With teams getting more protective of their players, a trend likely to increase in the future, less stars enter the tournament, leaving the WBC as an exhibition for teams to develop their AAA talent at something more competitive than Spring Training.
If there’s fewer stars, there’s fewer fans, which could explain the struggling attendance. Recently, there was a China-Brazil game in Japan which brought in 3,100 people (at least that’s what was announced). A similar attendance was present at the China-Cuba game a day earlier. While some might try to disregard these events since Japan wasn’t playing in either of the games, the low turnout does speak against the execution of the WBC and lack of internationally relevent star power.
Another flaw within the WBC is its ability to go dormant for years at a time. Unlike the World Cup, where teams begin qualifying and playing together years before the tournament, national teams dissipate until the next WBC starts. Even if they are playing together, they lack the star presence that fills out the rosters once every four years. This leaves teams no time to develop chemistry, minimizing the chances of a cinderella story and essentially designating the winner as the team has the most raw talent. In other words, you don’t get a Giants 2013 story in the WBC.
The WBC does little to encourage other countries from trying to qualify for the tournament. Every team who won one measly game in the 2009 WBC was guaranteed a berth in the 2013 tournament. The teams who didn’t win were forced to duke it out in a qualifying round with other interested countries. Thus, between the rest of the world, two spots were up for grabs out of 16. This does little to stimulate competition and international excitement, unless you live in one of the “pre-selected” countries.
One final interesting tid-bit shows how out of touch the WBC is with the rest of the world. The Netherlands team is comprised predominantly of players from Curacao. Curacao is an autonomous territory that is part of the Netherlands, somewhat similar to Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. However, Puerto Rico has its own team in the WBC, whereas Curacao is listed as the Netherlands. At least Curacao has its own World Cup team.
A lot needs to change in the WBC for it to accomplish what it was designed to do. Until then, we’ll wait for Opening Day.