Here We Go Again
MLB hopes second WBC will build on success of the first
LOS ANGELES—The second World Baseball Classic, the global showcase that ultimately received plaudits from inaugural cynics in 2006, will begin March 5 with Japan trying to repeat as champion and the U.S. seeking redemption for its early elimination.
If redemption seems an overstatement considering U.S. players are still in the early to mid-phase of spring training with the goal of winning the World Series as opposed to the World Classic, manager Davey Johnson says the "sour taste" of '06 should provide motivation amid favorable changes in the format.
As initiated by Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association and USA Baseball, the U.S. team reported to Clearwater, Fla., on March 1 for six days of training and three exhibition games as compared to three camp days and one exhibition against major league pitching in 2006.
In addition, exhibition games throughout Florida and Arizona can start on Feb. 25 instead of March 1, meaning pitchers on the U.S. team have already had two appearances before reporting to Clearwater, and the power hitters should be closer to regaining their form by the time the WBC begins.
In other words, a U.S. team that was 3-3 overall and failed to reach the semifinals, being eliminated in the second round of pool games by a 2-1 loss to Mexico, should be better prepared and better rounded.
Redemption? "I'll leave that to the players," Commissioner Bud Selig said.
Said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, returning to the U.S. team: "I think with the talent we have on the field every day in the U.S. you expected a better run, but I also think some of our guys thought we were just going to throw our bats and gloves out there and crush everybody.
"We knew there was good baseball played in the Western Hemisphere, but there's good baseball played in Asia as well, and they took it to us and to the whole tournament (Japan beat Cuba, 10-6, in the final). They came in ready, and nobody pitched as well as Japan and South Korea. I was surprised, and I think we all were, and this time around, having seen that, if our guys come into camp not ready to play, we're going to get beat again and beat soundly."
However, Jones added, it was difficult for the power hitters especially "to strap it up after only one exhibition game that last time, and that's been addressed. We should be better prepared mentally and physically, and with the power, speed, pitching and defense, I'm looking for a better showing.
"I mean, representing the country was one of the proudest and best experiences I've had in my career, but I guess you COULD say I'm looking for redemption as a team."
Expecting A Bigger Second Act
First-round games will be played in Tokyo, San Juan, Mexico City and Toronto, where the U.S. hopes to survive against Canada, Italy and Venezuela, which could start Felix Hernandez and bring in Frankie Rodriguez as the closer.
Second-round games will be played in Miami and San Diego, with the finals at Dodger Stadium March 21-23.
A total of 737,112 tickets were sold in '06, and officials expect to exceed that even with the poor global economy. Among several rules changes, pitch count limits will be increased from 65 to 70 in the first round, from 80 to 85 in the second, and to 100 per game in the semi-finals and final. A pitcher who throws 30 or more pitches in the semi-finals will not be eligible to pitch in the finals.
Johnson said he plans to carry 13 position players and 13 pitchers, of which only four will be starters. The only four starters on the 28-man provisional roster were Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly and Jeremy Guthrie.
"We have plenty of relief pitching, so I think we only need the four starters," Johnson said. "Instead of running it like an All-Star game, I think you're going to see some of our guys playing nine innings so that they'll still be getting their at-bats late in the game when they've developed some timing and comfort. If Derek Jeter starts a game at shortstop, he'll probably play nine innings, and Jimmy Rollins will play nine in the next game.
"It's not an easy assignment because you're trying to serve two masters. You want to win the WBC, but you want guys going back to their teams ready to open the season."
Depending on the final rosters, the Angels are a team that could be hit hard, losing five or six players to the WBC, and manager Mike Scioscia said "developing continuity in the spring is always a concern.
"Those are the concerns you have to work around, but the WBC is a great showcase for baseball, and there's a preparation component this time that should raise the intensity level for the U.S. team. You live and learn. I don't necessarily believe that whoever wins has the best overall talent in the world, but if you lose when you're expected to win and should win, if you don't play well, then it reflects on your country and preparation, and that's something the U.S. is paying attention to this time."
Said Paul Seiler, Executive Director and CEO of USA Baseball:
"We're not treating this like an All-Star game or an exhibition. We've tried to extend the amount of preparation and build a team capable of winning an international tournament in which some of the teams boast some of the best players in the world and some look on it as a success if they beat the U.S. even once."
The U.S. roster lists Curtis Granderson, Shane Victorino, David Wright and Rollins among potential base stealers, a considerable improvement from the 2006 roster, which was handicapped when three versatile and fleet players rejected offers: Carl Crawford (wrist injury), Chone Figgins (switching to third base and choosing to spend the spring with the Angels) and Ryan Freel (off the field issue).
The absence of a better rounded roster and the short preparation time handicapped manager Buck Martinez, who reflected and still called it the "best thing I've ever been part of. The spirit of the players and the spirit of the event were great, and it was a true honor to represent the country."
The former major league catcher and manager talked to Bob Watson, the general manager of USA Baseball's professional teams, and requested to manage the U.S. team again but was denied—"It was a disappointment but not a life altering decision," Martinez said—in favor of Johnson, who has been akin to USA Baseball's in-house manager since 2005.
An Olympics Stepping Stone?
Johnson, who has managed four major league teams and taken three—the Mets, Reds and Orioles—to the post-season, served as a bench coach in '06 and said he didn't mind giving way to Martinez for the inaugural because he knew it would be a difficult, if not impossible, task given the short preparation time and the long ball nature of the roster.
Johnson has talked to most of the players on the provisional roster.
"I think most of the returning players are really pumped up," he said. "I think they have a better understanding of what it's about, what we're up against and why we didn't play better the first time. I think MLB and a lot of the players felt that if we just showed up we could beat most of those teams, but some of the guys from other countries play a lot more during the winter than our players do.
"I mean, we don't expect our guys to be in midseason form, but the extension of our preparation time should raise the intensity and performance level. Maybe that first go-around was a good lesson to learn. We all know now that if we don't have a lot of things running at full speed we could go home early again." With the WBC parlayed to a bit later start to the regular season and the off days during the first two rounds of the post-season, the World Series will stretch into November, which given the terrible weather during the 2008 World Series is an ominous prospect.
"We understand that March isn't perfect," said Selig, referring to the timing of the WBC, "but it's the only realistic time we can have it. We can't interrupt the regular season and we can't have it at the end when it's impossible to get the players together and we face major weather problems.
"I know a lot of people had a lot of concerns—players, owners, managers—and they weren't hesitant about expressing them, but I thought the 2006 WBC was amazing and I'm confident we'll make bigger strides this time.
"The interest level in the respective countries is enormous. We've made global expansion a priority, and this is our one big chance to take the game everywhere. It's been a cooperative venture with the players union, another example of how we are now working together."
Whether it is played every three or four years, as originally planned, the WBC's potential popularity could become a steppingstone to landing baseball back in the Olympics, particularly in 2016, when Chicago is in the running to host the Games.
"We've been talking a lot to Harvey Schiller (president of the International Baseball Federation)," Selig said. "He knows we can't interrupt our season to get our best players in the (mid-summer) Olympics. If this leads back to the Olympics, that would be great. In the meantime, as I said, it's a chance to showcase our sport everywhere."
Keeping An Open Mind
Reached at his Manhattan office, Schiller said he has an open mind about the Olympics.
"One of the things we are trying to do is align ourselves with softball so that both sports can be added to the Olympics in 2016, women in softball and men in baseball. The WBC just shows the importance and popularity of the game on a global basis. In fact, I think the future of this event can look like the final four in basketball and the World Cup in soccer where we grow to 32 and 64 countries."
In the meantime, with 16 countries competing again this time, Schiller believes a combination of things will make the second WBC bigger than the first despite the economy.
"First," he said, "you have the experience of having done it before. Second, the fact that the U.S. didn't make it to the finals, I think that motivates on a nationalist basis both sides. The U.S. players want to win similar to the Dream Team in basketball winning in Beijing, and the defending champions want to repeat, so the level of competition will increase over time.
"Third, the fact that we're moving forward to having both out of competition and in competition drug testing at an increased level will satisfy the public's demand as well as our interest in making sure everyone is compliant with the rules and regulations as specified by the International Olympic Committee.
(The IOC Commission meets in both March and June, and the February steroid revelations of Alex Rodriguez—who played for Team USA in the '06 WBC and is on the Dominican Republic's provisional roster for '09—certainly won't help baseball's Olympics case.)
"Fourth, and this is huge, now that there is the MLB Network in addition to ESPN, it ensures domestically and internationally that the games can be viewed everywhere.
"And fifth, the fact the finals were awarded to a diverse city like Los Angeles earlier than the finals were given to San Diego in 2006 has allowed more time for preparation and enhanced the possibility of late ticket sales, depending on the finalists."
MLB, of course, hopes that the U.S. is one of the finalists, and it has altered the preparation format in an effort to make it a reality.
However, Japan proved in '06 it can play on anybody's home court, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Cuba or the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or South Korea or Puerto Rico proved it in '09.
Ross Newhan, the 2001 winner of the Spink award and former Los Angeles Times columnist, covers baseball in Los Angeles.