On the eve of the Classic, tournament coverage marked by withdrawals

The first pitch of the World Baseball Classic is just five days away. While the tournament hype machine has been working overtime lately, the biggest news out of baseball has been the defections and withdrawals.

Major Leaguers are dropping like flies, and in my opinion, these defections reflect poorly on the institutional support for the tournament.

Last week, more big names withdrew from the WBC. The Blue Jays’ outfielder Vernon Wells announced he won’t play in the first round due to a leg injury. While this injury may just be an excuse for Wells to stick around the Blue Jays camp on the eve of an exciting season for Toronto, it means that the American team will be relying on Jeff Francoeur and Randy Winn in the outfield. These two players are hardly of Wells’ caliber.

In another case of Manny being Manny, the Red Sox enigmatic slugger seems to enjoy being around Boston’s spring camp so much that he took himself off the Dominica roster. Who knows what this is all about? After an off-season during which the Red Sox tried to tried their disgruntled All Star, I am surprised Manny wants to spend any extra time around the Red Sox camp.

In my opinion, this is a case of Manny exerting the least amount of energy. While Ramirez may come off as aloof on the field and somewhat absent-minded, he is not an idiot. Ramirez knows that if he were to play on Team DR, he would be expected to show up and compete throughout the course of the tournament. But this tournament is just exhibition. Why should he over-exert himself so early in the year? By staying with Boston, he can take it easy and relax. He can be Manny.

The Dominican team so far has been hit the hardest by those opting out of the tournament. Alongside Manny’s announcement came a decision from Pedro Martinez. His sore toe has forced him out of the tournament. Pedro’s toe has been an issue since the end of September when he missed his last few starts for the New York Mets. Fitted with a special shoe, Martinez has been looking for a way to pitch without pain. He has decided that he is not physically ready to compete in the tournament. I can’t blame him.

Angels’ rookie Ervin Santana who wowed the baseball world by shutting down the Yankees in game five of the ALDS last October also dropped out of the tournament. He wants to stay in Spring Training with the Angels. Santana and Martinez were at one point expected to be key cogs in the Dominican pitching rotation.

Withdrawing due to health reasons was the projected Dominican starting third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs’ All Star who hit 31 home runs in just 123 games last season missed the month of September with a strained left quad. Replacing him will be Seattle’s free agent bust Adrian Beltre. While the Dominican Republic team was one of the early favorites for the tournament, these high profile loses could harm the team’s chances.

While the Dominican team is struggling to keep its All Stars on board for the tournament, the Panama team suffered a morale blow late last week when Roberto Kelly, the manager, quit. Kelly, citing a lack of support from the Panama baseball federation, noted that many of his star players were held back to play in the Panamanian league championship tournament.

Bruce Chen of the Orioles echoed Kelly’s sentiments. Chen, as reported by the Washington Post, said that he agreed with Kelly’s assessment.

Kelly’s resignation showcases one of the conflicts of the tournament. Many international leagues hold popular championship tournaments during March, and training for these tournaments begins in January and February. To compete in the World Baseball Classic, teams needed to practice throughout February.

In other words, international baseball federations, the organizations in charge of putting together the nation-based teams, would have ask their nation’s top players to pull out of the popular tournaments. As I noted last week, organizers in Cuba were not too thrilled about this prospect, and it seems that the same has happened in Panama as well.

So as the tournament nears its start this Friday with games in Asia, the biggest stories leading up to the first pitch won’t be about the tournament. Rather, the reports will focus on who is in and who is out, who is hurt and who is not. For Major League Baseball, these stories are hardly the positive marketing light through which they had hoped to sell the tournament.

Hopefully, once the games start, the focus will be on the compelling on-field action instead of the behind-the-scenes machinations. In the meantime, tournament supporters will just have to hope that the remaining big names will still be enough to draw international interest for the two-and-a-half week event.

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