As its debut approached, the World Baseball Classic seemed to be leading the sports world in one category: naysayers.
A Google search for the phrase “World Baseball Classic” spits out the following headlines, and scores more just like them:
“Baseball adds a spring classic, and it’s a bad idea”
“World Baseball Classic may not be all that classic”
“World Baseball Classic a classically dumb venture”
It’s somewhat surprising considering that when plans for the Classic were announced last summer, it was hard to find a baseball fan who wasn’t drooling over the prospect of seeing an international competition of the highest order. But as details of the event gradually got hammered out, many attitudes in the press toward the event evolved from intrigue to insult.
The flaws involved with the Classic have been chronicled ad nauseam by its critics–poor timing, poor participation and poor competition. The most repeated lament is the timing of the event, which has led to a number of the biggest names in baseball–from Barry Bonds to Eric Gagne to Hideki Matsui–to remove themselves from consideration due to injury concerns, or because they are not ready to play at a competitive level in early March. Many pitchers pulled out even though Major League Baseball imposed pitch counts to prevent anyone from being overworked.
Then organizers unveiled provisional rosters, based on liberal eligibility rules regarding which players could play for which nations. Alex Rodriguez was famously on two rosters (he ended up choosing Team USA over the Dominican Republic), and Athletics righthander Dan Haren was on the Netherlands roster–even though his father is Irish and his mother Mexican. Critics inserted their Classic jokes here.
Others pointed out the folly of a 16-team competition with an American team loaded with all-stars taking on a South African team that features only one player who has reached Double-A. Yet competitive imbalance is nothing new to international team competition or baseball, for that matter. Even advocates of the first-time event admit some kinks of the Classic will need to be worked out.
“It’s been a long time since players began to talk about international competitions of this type. It’s taken a while for us to get here,” union head Donald Fehr said when the Classic was announced last July. “New ventures like this always take a little longer than you would hope to get off the ground, and there are always a few more wrinkles than you would like.”
While the focus for many has been on the foibles of the event, for those paying attention many participants and fans have shown a lot of enthusiasm. For example, Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano proudly declared he wants the ball for Venezuela in its opening game against the Dominican Republic.
“I like challenges and I think this could be a big one,” Zambrano told ESPNdeportes.com. “I think they will be the best team in the World Classic and I want to face them.”
The excitement has not been lost on Dominican Republic manager Manny Acta either.
“Down there the feeling is unbelievable,” Acta said. “It is the biggest thing because we haven’t had a good experience when it comes down to international baseball at the amateur level.
“The people are seeing this as a chance for us to finally to put our country where we think it belongs when it comes down to international baseball. We provide a lot of players at the big league level, but we never had any type of success in international baseball.”
Acta also realizes that his countrymen expect success.
“I have been telling my wife and some friends that if we don’t win, then I probably won’t be able to come back to the country,” he cracked. “I think they will hang me.”
That Venezuelans and Dominicans are excited about the event does not come as a surprise. From the outset, the prevailing notion has been that the Latin American countries will bring more enthusiasm to the Classic than most other countries, including the United States. Someone forgot to tell the American players.
“There is a lot of pride in our team and in our country, and if the perception is that we don’t care as much then so be it,” American reliever Billy Wagner said. “I don’t think anybody is going to take it easy. We are out there to win.”
The United States has had its share of players bow out from the event, but the players on the final 30-man roster are strongly committed. The Americans did not have much nationalistic pressure to play, and many clubs preferred not to have their players involved if they could avoid it. So those involved are playing by choice.
“The Americans are happy to be in the Classic too,” Dominican shortstop Miguel Tejada said. “I think all those players can’t wait for the Classic because they are feeling the same thing, they want to represent their country.”
Look no further then the Yankees for proof. Owner George Steinbrenner voiced his opposition to the event, yet Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon will all be suiting up for the Americans. That they are willing to risk the ire of The Boss in case of any sort of injury provides plenty of evidence that they are eager to play.
“When you get on that field, and you have your country’™s name across your chest, it is gonna be on,” United States righthander Jake Peavy said. “I promise you this, I am going to do whatever I can to get people out to win this for my country.”
Some players, like Team USA alum and A’™s closer Huston Street, wanted in from day one.
“I spoke to him early on,” Team USA manager Buck Martinez said. “And his reaction to me calling was, ‘I was hoping you were calling about this.’ “
Even with enthusiastic participants, doubters wonder if the event’™s timing and the pitch counts will prevent the tournament from being all that it can be.
“It would be fantastic if MLB took a two-week break in July and had players from different countries going at it, while in midseason form,” said ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of the most prominent media critics of the event. “But the timing of it makes it certain that the players won’t be anywhere close to peak condition.
“The average fan is not going to understand why teams require four pitchers by the seventh inning, because they’re accustomed to the postseason standard of play.”
Olney’s idea would be the model for the highest level of player participation and quality of play. If the inaugural tournament is a success, however, future Classics should lure better players, more television viewers and more lucrative sponsorship for MLB. For now, the Classic is a work in progress as it attempts to capture some of the insanity that accompanies World Cup tournaments in other sports, most notably soccer’s.
“I think after this one they are going to be able to see what went right and what went wrong and make this like the World Cup of soccer and hockey,” Acta said. “It will internationalize the game, and you’ll see that in the next one and in maybe the third one you will see countries that will be more competitive.”
Even its most ardent critics believe it has chance.
“It needs some high-profile confrontations, time and again, to make it work this spring,” Olney said. “They need compelling finishes day after day after day, so that the average fan will forget about the pitch counts and focus on the drama.
“Manny Ramirez hitting a walk-off homer off Billy Wagner or K-Rod (Venezuela’™s Francisco Rodriguez) staring down hitters. Those kind of finishes have to replace the player walkouts as the primary theme.”
Is that possible? No one will know until the Classic happens and the road to the inaugural event has not been without potholes. The first World Baseball Classic may not be all that MLB has dreamed it can be, but as an appetizer for the 2006 season and a taste of the intensity of international baseball, it should not be written off before a pitch is thrown.