World Baseball Classic should stay a nice idea

As part of Major League Baseball’s effort to expand its international horizons, the 2006 Spring Training will play home to the first World Baseball Classic.

This World Cup-style tournament, announced last week, will feature teams from 16 nations across the globe. The tournament, according to MLB.com, is tentatively schedule to run from March 4 through March 20. These dates would clearly overlap with the first two and a half weeks of Sprig Training games, and opinions on this World Baseball Classic are decided mixed.

On face value, this tournament would be a boom for Major League Baseball. It would mark the first event of its kind to feature Major Leaguers. The Olympic tournament – long a contest for amateurs – has only recently allowed professional, non-Major Leaguers to play.

It would certainly attract tons of international attention. Fans in the Asian countries – notably Taiwan and Japan – would rabidly follow a tournament of this ilk. The Netherlands and Italy with their vibrant baseball leagues would finally garner international attention. These games may even draw out the Cuba National Team, pending Fidel Castro’s and State Department approval.

The fans would eat up these games, too. In the competitive Asian market, the early round games between Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan would bring out sets of fans who are vehemently loyal and proud of their teams. The games in America – especially those between Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the United States and Venezuela – would be All-Star spectacles. Imagine a Roger Clemens-Johan Santana show down or an outfield with Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

But once you get beyond the fantasy of these games, reality sets in, and I’ve been wondering over the last few days if the World Baseball Classic really such a great idea. My first thoughts were about Spring Training and the Classic’s timing. I and millions of other like-minded fans have made trips down to Spring Training for years. Spring Training is a great time of year. It’s the time to see your favorite players emerge from the dark days of the off-season. It’s a time to start over. It’s a time to let the young kids get their cuts in.

All of that would change with a World Baseball Classic. Instead of a fan-friendly atmosphere at relaxed baseball games, Spring Training would get overshadowed by nationalistic, ultra-hyped baseball games. Sure, they would be popular, but if the stars – and seeing them up close is the real drawing power of Spring Training – are off playing for the Classic, Spring Training loses some of its luster. That’s not something Major League Baseball should actively encourage.

From the teams’ points of view, many owners, general managers and coaching staffs would not be too keen on watching their guys out on the field going all out for their teams. Imagine a fierce competitor such as Roger Clemens trying to go six or seven innings in early March so the United States’ team can advance to the semifinals. I bet Phil Garner and Tim Purpura wouldn’t be too keen to see that.

Now, during Spring Training, pitchers normally throw only 40-50 pitches during the early going. Seeing World Baseball Classic games with Santana and Tim Hudson pitching three innings would hardly be compelling baseball. Convincing teams to allow their aces to pitch longer so early in the season is something that just won’t happen. As Baseball America reported last week, the final guidelines due in July will contain specific information on how many pitches are permissible and how much rest pitchers need so early in the season.

If this World Baseball Classic were to demand early preparation from those players selected to participate, a late-season tail-off could be expected as well. By the end of the season, players are beat up and bruised. The marathon of the regular season takes its tool on these guys. If a whole bunch of players upon which teams will rely to carry them into October have already been playing for three or four extra weeks in February, then they’ll fade that much more in September. It’s tough to justify potentially messing around with pennant races just to hold what amounts to an exhibition tournament in March.

Then, there’s always the issue of an injury. The Angels wouldn’t want to face missing Vlad for three months if he were to go down with an injury during the Classic. And, in fact, George Steinbrenner has made some public comments stating he wouldn’t allow his high-priced players to risk their regular-season health by playing in this tournament. I can’t say I really blame him.

The World Baseball Classic is a great idea, but maybe it should stay just that. If those in charge start tinkering with the schedule to make those games in March actually count for something, it could have an effect on those games in September or April that really do matter in the standings.

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