Just a six weeks before its first pitches, the World Baseball Classic certainly isn’t lacking for storylines.
Which team will Alex “John Kerry” Rodriguez flip-flop his way toward this week? Will Roger Clemens come out of semi-unretirement to pitch for the US team? Will Mike Piazza, in touch with his Italian heritage, audition himself onto a Major League team? Do people named Sharnol Adriana and Jurjen van Zijl really play baseball?
And let’s not forget the Cuba Question. Will the Bush Administration allow a Castro-sponsored Cuban team into the tournament? How will this affect baseball’s standing with the IOC?
These storylines are great for the game. As Jared Weiss pointed out at Three True Outcomes, the World Baseball Classic is dominating headlines just two weeks before the Super Bowl, the biggest sports weekend of the winter, if not the year. The conflicts are generating discussion on the Internet, ESPN, and every medium in between.
As an added bonus, baseball fans hungry for the game will get live televized games that count for something from March through the end of October this year. Who could ask for anything more?
Well, I, for one, could. Despite all of the popularity and publicity, the intrigue and interest, I still find myself unsettled by the idea of this March tournament. March, after all, is the time for exhibition and practice. It’s the time for pitch counts and all-slider appearances by All Star starters facing AA lineups during a split squad game. It’s a time for lazy baseball in Florida or Arizona. Is it really a good idea to ratchet up the competition right as players are getting used to playing again?
My first complaint about the World Baseball Classic is its strict adherence to pitch counts. Pitchers have long been the ones who have needed the time during Spring Training. And during those six weeks before Opening Day, pitchers start slow. Their first game appearances are tightly managed affairs. Usually, pitchers will throw just fastballs one game and then just breaking balls another before dipping into a complete repertoire.
Can we really look at the WBC as a serious competition if game 1 starter Johan Santana is throwing 40 pitches and all of them fastballs in the low-90s instead of his usual approach of mid- to high-90s fastballs with devastating breaking pitches? What happens when Buck Martinez has to pull Brad Lidge in the 9th after he’s reached his pitch total? You can bet that managers and owners will be leaning heavily on WBC coaches to limit the wear and tear on their key players. I can’t help but think that pitching limits compromises the tournament from the start.
From a different perspective, pitching counts could also negatively impact teams that rely heavily on Major League arms. As far as I know, MLB pitchers are the only ones in the tournament so far subjected to strict limits. What about pitchers from the Chinese Taipei team? Or non-MLBers on the Venezuelan team? Or the entire roster from the Netherlands? If these teams are throwing out their best pitchers for a long time in an effort to gain an edge while Andy Pettitte and Jake Peavy are limited to 50 pitches each, I don’t see a truly even tournament experience. Don’t get me wrong; I would rather have 50 pitches of Peavy than some no-name from the Netherlands. But the Chinese and Japanese teams will be competitive.
Next up comes the role of bench players on the WBC team rosters. One of the joys of Spring Training is that everyone gets in the lineup. Players play for a little while but everyone gets their at-bats. If the same provision is guaranteed for position players as it is for regular players, we’ll see quite a lineup. But managerial and game strategies will go right out the window. If you have to get your bench in the game, there will be no late-inning substitutions made out of necessity because no one is left on the bench.
(On a side note: I find the injury excuse to be weak. Players could get injured during Spring Training games. In fact, sometimes players even manage the Spring Training shower injury. Playing a sport puts you at risk of injury. Period.)
So then how do you fix the WBC? Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com posed a few ideas yesterday. He suggested a shorter season with the tournament after the World Series. I think that’s an excellent idea. Additionally, Selig and Co. could opt to expand the All Star break by another 10 days and hold the tournament in July. While that could disrupt the pennant race, it would fit well into the flow of a baseball season. A post-postseason tournament may lose a lot of fans to football.
In the end, as Rosenthal noted, those of us who have criticized Selig for not extending the international reach of the game cannot turn around and rail on the World Baseball Classic. It would be hypocritical, to say the least, and for all of my misgivings, I am looking forward to seeing these games played. I’m looking forward to the national battles and the stories the tournament generates around the globe.
I can confidently say, however, that I think this tournament would be much more entertaining and competitive if played over two weeks in July or following the World Series at the end of an abbreviated season. Then, we could have a real World Baseball Classic.