Dr. Harvey Schiller was out at one of his favorite lunch spots in New York when the maitre’d started to chat him up about baseball. In February.
“He was asking me about the Caribbean Series,” said Schiller, who as president of the International Baseball Federation is charged mainly with getting baseball back into the Olympics. “I’d never heard anyone talk about the Caribbean Series in New York City before.”
The next step, he hopes, is to get New Yorkers (and the rest of the country) to talk international baseball in March during the second edition of the World Baseball Classic.
It’s a tall order, going up against March Madness, a.k.a. the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In its first head-to-head matchup with March Madness in 2006, the WBC basically was a modest success; it caught on a bit, but it didn’t take the world by storm.
And as the WBC drew closer in 2009, it seems like the second edition has lost momentum before even getting started.
This is a tough time to try to grow a signature event. You’ve probably heard by now about the faltering American (and world) economy. Baseball has gone through another offseason rife with negative publicity, the latest coming from steroid revelations by Alex Rodriguez.
Doping issues aren’t unique to baseball in international sports, obviously, but drug issues in Major League Baseball, and the lack of MLB players in international competition, were two key issues to getting baseball voted out of the Olympics. The World Anti-Doping Agency has criticized baseball frequently, for everything from its delayed release of WBC testing procedures in 2006 to its response to the Mitchell Report last winter. The success of the WBC, Schiller says, should help get baseball back on track to get on the Olympic schedule again for 2016.
“I like to think that we’re moving forward, with out-of-competition testing and in-competition now in compliance with WADA,” he said. “Compliance with WADA is a big deal, and I think there has to be some focus on the fact that Major League Baseball, the Players Association and IBAF all have moved forward on this issue, together, in a very positive way.”
Get Your Attention
To continue to move forward, the WBC has to be more than just drug free; it has to be entertaining, compelling baseball that makes the American audience take notice. Timing is another problem altogether for the event. Getting players on the field for exhibition games in early March is one thing; getting them ready for games that count, playing for their country, is quite another. It’s especially a concern for pitchers, resulting in WBC games with pitch counts (which have been adjusted slightly upward this year).
The timing of the WBC conflicts with players trying to get ready for the regular season. Big-name players, from Scott Kazmir and Johan Santana to Josh Hamilton and Francisco Liriano, were dropping off provisional rosters with gathering momentum. For the Classic to be a success, it can’t be seen as a distraction. But there’s no getting around the fact that playing the WBC during spring training is not ideal.
Last summer, USA Baseball general manager Bob Watson floated the idea of MLB stopping its season for the Olympics, particularly if the 2016 games are held in Tokyo or Chicago. It would seem to make more sense, however, to just play the WBC at midseason, or at least part of it.
Here’s an idea—play the first two rounds of the WBC in spring as is done now, whittling 16 nations down to four. Then take the final four out of March, which already has a Final Four. Instead, bring the four nations back in July. Instead of the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, play the WBC semifinals and finals on back-to-back days in July. (We’d keep the Futures Game, of course.)
We’ll leave it to Bud Selig to come up with a way to decide who gets home-field advantage in the World Series, but with the WBC in place of the All-Star Game once every four years, “This Time It Counts!” will actually mean something. And with players in midseason form, the WBC would have a chance to become a truly marquee event.
Imagine, people talking about international baseball in July. Now that would be something.