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Memo for MLB: 10 ways to improve the Classic
By Alan Schwarz
SAN DIEGO -- Lost in the hoopla, forgotten in the waning skepticism and mounting excitement of each of its 39 games, was the fact that the inaugural World Baseball Classic was just that--the first attempt at what will surely be an even better event in 2009 and beyond. It was a dry run, a hastily planned experiment that as much as anything became a learning experience for all.
"Anyone who tells you they wouldn't do anything different," said the Players Association's Gene Orza, "is lying through their teeth, or crazy."
Here are the Top 10 things everyone involved -- the players, the organizers, the press and the fans -- learned from the first World Baseball Classic:
10. Korea Can Play. While South Africa delighted us with their attitude, the Koreans astounded us with their defense. They went undefeated through the first two rounds, beating Japan twice and the United States once, by making no errors and displaying the exactitude of a fine watch movement. Korea has exported some pitchers to the majors (Chan Ho Park, Byung-Hyun Kim) and a plodding slugger (Hee Seop Choi), but we should only hope its fielders arrive soon.
9. Pool Play Gets Confusing. Even WBC officials strained to clearly explain the round-robin tiebreakers, which first saved and then doomed the United States. There's really no other way to hold a tournament like this--international baseball has used similar formats for decades -- and it did bring the opportunity for chicanery. (Plausible scenarios emerged where two teams could collude to eliminate a third, or a team was actually better off striking out than playing to win.) But pool play was a welcome, intriguing change from routine major league formats.
8. The Schedule Needs Tweaking. While this year's bracket was blatantly designed to deliver Team USA to the final against a Latin American team--though of course that didn't happen--the next WBC should divide teams based more on overall strength. And the semifinals, rather than pitting two teams that played in the same pool days before, should use a criss-cross format that allows for more varied matchups.
7. The U.S. Is Not Vital. Interest in the WBC didn't grind to a halt, even in America, with Team USA's exit in the second round. In many ways people became more intrigued with all the new names, faces and stories. Maybe ESPN sighed, but true fans cheered.
6. Umpires Matter. WBC organizers threw together its umpiring staff at the last minute when they couldn't get major league umps under contract. Bob Davidson didn't make his disastrous sacrifice-fly call against Japan out of American pride, but more care must be taken to have the best umpires with appropriate mixes in nationality. Like most matters in the public eye, it isn't just the existence of impropriety that matters; it's the appearance of impropriety.
5. March Is Fine. Baseball fans like to watch baseball, even if the NCAA basketball tournament is on. And if American players don't want to train early in January and February to prepare for the Classic, they can continue to lose to teams that do. As for having it during the all-star break, MLB simply won't disrupt its season, and as for November, players have insisted it be March, when they're missing spring training, not vacation.
4. The Injury Risk Was Overblown. Contrary to predictions that players would fall like ducks in a carnival booth, only one big leaguer (Luis Ayala) sustained a major injury during the WBC. (And almost certainly fewer bumps and bruises than in blasé spring-training camps.) Of course, we still don't know whether the bullets that Bartolo Colon and other pitchers used during the WBC will not be available come September. But the worst fears were unfounded, and raising the first-round pitch limits by 5-10 could become an option for the future.
3. MLB Can't Play Favorites. With the WBC staged by U.S.-based Major League Baseball and the Players Association, whose officials are primarily American, many delegates from other national federations felt that the hosts favored Team USA. (Examples included the scheduling, the umpires and MLB's Scouting Bureau giving scouting reports to Team USA and not others.) If MLB wants to host the event, it must quash all internal biases and act equally on behalf of all.
2. Nine Innings = Many Upsets. The same people who complain that five-game MLB Division Series are too short were awfully quick to declare Korea and Mexico better than the U.S. after one-game wins. But single games might be the only way to stage the World Baseball Classic, and the pressure and uncertainty fostered by one-and-done make the outcome only more unpredictable.
1. This Was A Blast. Baseball America readers have long recognized the appeal of international baseball, but the WBC convinced even the most hardened skeptics that a worldwide competition could, in fact, be held safely and successfully. When people just calmed down and let the games take over, they couldn't help but have one heck of a time.