World Baseball Classic: Let The Games Begin
By Matt Meyers
March 1, 2006
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
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
"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
"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
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