Despite Successes, World Baseball Classic Still Finding Its Footing

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Baseball Classic Rosters/Stats

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Paul Seiler was returning from yet another international meeting in early February when he passed through customs at Miami International Airport.

As executive director/CEO of USA Baseball, Seiler is used to his bag tag drawing looks and even questions from fans eager to talk about the sport.

This time, the customs agent took the questioning one step further.

“You playing in Miami?” the man said.

Seiler admittedly was momentarily “caught off guard” before realizing the agent had connected the dots and was talking about the World Baseball Classic. Seiler gladly explained Team USA would have to survive and opening-round pool in Arizona in order to reach Marlins Park for the second round.

“For me that was pretty cool,” Seiler says. “Here’s a guy who knows the WBC is going to be played in his city in a month. He even mentioned a player we had on our team this time. He was right on it.”

As the World Baseball Classic draws closer to launching its third incarnation, there is plenty of similar anecdotal evidence to suggest the event is gaining traction and popularity, if not quite poised for an exponential leap forward.

Tickets sold out in one day for the three Pool B games involving first-round host Taiwan in Taichung. Marlins closer Steve Cishek said it gave him “goose bumps” when he got the call from Team USA manager Joe Torre informing him he had been selected for the provisional roster.

Former big league outfielder Ernie Young, who remains deeply involved in USA Baseball after winning a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, reports more people near his Arizona home are wearing the USA World Baseball Classic hat. “That right there tells me people have gotten into the whole WBC concept,” Young says.

Then there is Jorge Otsuka, longtime president of the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation, who sat beaming throughout a dreadfully boring logistics session during the Winter Meetings in Nashville.

Brazil and Spain earned their way into the 16-team field for the first time by winning two of the four qualifying tournaments played last fall as the WBC expanded from 16 to 28 teams. With a team managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Brazil is apparently looking forward to this event with great anticipation, even as soccer’s World Cup (2014) and the Summer Olympics (2016) prepare to descend upon the futbol-mad country.

After the meeting finally ended, Seiler walked over to Otsuka and asked his friend a question.

“Jorge,” he said, “what’s your deal?”

Otsuka, still smiling, just shook his head in amazement.

“Look,” he said, “at where we are.”

Profitable And Widespread

By almost any objective measure, there is no denying the World Baseball Classic has been a success on multiple levels since it was introduced in 2006.

Start with profitability. Despite massive startup costs incurred by Major League Baseball, which runs the event, the WBC has managed to generate modest profits each time.

In turn, MLB has distributed roughly $15 million to various baseball federations around the world in keeping with its stated aim of increasing the game’s platform and footprint internationally.

Through two events, total WBC attendance has exceeded 1.5 million, and that number should climb even higher this time around with an expanded field and a full four years to promote interest. Attendance for the opening round in 2009 was 38 percent higher than it was for the first round in the inaugural WBC. More than 450,000 fans attended opening-round games four years ago, and total attendance for the event was more than 800,000, which rivals some Winter Olympics.

A first-round game in 2009 between Japan and South Korea posted a 37.8 rating in Japan, making that the highest-rated sports telecast in Japan since the 2006 WBC final between Japan and Cuba (43.4). That included, amazingly enough, the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ratings back home were even higher when Japan rallied to clip South Korea in the final, claiming its second straight WBC championship.

Paul Archey, senior vice president of international business operations for Major League Baseball, says he still gets asked by South Korean journalists why their manager opted to pitch to Ichiro Suzuki with a base open and one more out needed for the title.

“That’s the first question I get there,” says Archey, adding the Korea Baseball Organization, the nation’s top pro league, has enjoyed record attendance since the advent of the WBC.

When the Japanese players’ union forged an agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball, enabling that country to send the two-time champions back to defend their WBC title, the news was splashed across the front page of newspapers throughout the country and national television networks interrupted broadcasts to carry the news conference live.

“I would say the World Baseball Classic has been without question an overwhelming success for us,” Archey says. “There’s not an initiative we’ve done internationally that has really accomplished more in growing the game than the WBC.”

And yet there is a nagging sense the WBC has not fully realized its potential, especially stateside.

After airing games on ESPN the first two times, television rights have been taken in-house for WBC 3, leaving the MLB Network to cloak the coverage in the proper mix of pomp and inquisition for its 70 million households.

No billion-dollar, March Madness-style TV windfalls for the WBC. Not yet, at least.

Roster composition for Team USA remains a significant challenge as well.

Even with Joe Torre stepping into the manager’s role, Team USA again was met with a heavy dose of rejection when compiling its 28-man roster. Pitchers, in particular, have been hard to lure for an event that asks them to compete on an international stage at a point in the spring when they are typically still building up their arms.

Just three starting pitchers were left on the roster after injury concerns and a newborn baby prompted Braves righthander Kris Medlen to back out, and even Andy Pettitte opted against reuniting with Torre, his longtime manager with the Yankees.

Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, now of the Blue Jays, topped that short list. The veteran knuckleballer is joined by Giants righty Ryan Vogelsong and Rangers lefty Derek Holland.

Team USA tried to lure Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who pitched for the Collegiate National Team in 2004, and held a spot open on the roster with that in mind. But when Verlander wouldn’t commit, the U.S. moved on, adding Nationals lefthander Gio Gonzalez to the rotation. As consolation prizes go, the reigning MLB wins leader with 21 last year isn’t bad.

“I could see why people or why organizations think it’s not a good idea for a pitcher to go,” Cishek says. “For me, I go into spring training prepared for the regular season anyway. I’m game ready, so for me it wasn’t going to be a big deal.”

The rubber-armed Cishek is in the minority there.

Bob Watson, who served as Team USA general manager for the first two WBC events as well as for the Sydney Olympics, laughs when asked what sort of resistance he encountered in 2006 and ’09. “Let’s put it this way, it was lower than 75 percent (who accepted),” Watson says.

Former union official Gene Orza handled most of the preliminary work, Watson says. “He was our guy who went out and rounded up the players. They didn’t want it to feel like the commissioner’s office or Team USA was putting the pressure on. They had the Players Association do it. Gene would contact the player and the agent.”

Another veteran baseball executive who was apprised of the process insists the rejection rate was even higher when it came to pitchers.

“I’d say it was 80 percent who said ‘no,’ ” the executive said. “For every 10 pitchers you asked, you might get two of them. You would go down the list of whatever stat you think is most important for a starting pitcher. You would ask the No. 1 guy. He’d say ‘no,’ then you’d go down to the No. 2 guy and he’d say ‘no.’ It was really a simple process.”

Incredibly frustrating, too.

When To Play

In large part because of those frustrations, sentiment has grown on the U.S. side and within major league front offices to change the scheduling of the WBC and push at least the back end of it away from the incredibly crowded sports month of March.

Early talk about playing the full event in November seems to have subsided. Now it’s more about whether it might be feasible to break apart the four semifinalists, for example, and play that part of the WBC during an expanded all-star break in July.

“Make it a seven-day all-star break and play a WBC tournament then,” Watson says. “You could still have the home run derby and the All-Star Game. Major League Baseball has got some smart guys plus some computers to figure that kind of stuff out, but I believe it could be done.”

Watson, who is interrupting his retirement to help coordinate the WBC venue in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this March, maintains the overall quality of play would improve because players from all nations would be in midseason form by that time.

“What happens so much in spring training is twofold,” Watson says. “Physically and mentally guys are not in sync to let it out like they would during the season—the right fielder making that strong throw to the plate, or somebody scoring from first on a ball in the gap or a pitcher really extending himself.

“In the middle of the season, you don’t have to worry about that. Plus, you probably would get more of your stars to participate. The season would already be in full swing. You wouldn’t hear all this about getting hurt and whatever.”

Seiler, who worked closely with Watson on the first two WBC endeavors for Team USA, is admittedly “intrigued” by the notion of completing the showcase event in July.

“I think at the surface you have an unbelievably great event,” Seiler says. “It’s global, and when you factor in the level of player interest, fan interest, merchandising, television . . . I mean, it is a solid, solid event. But I am of the opinion it might need a little bit of tweaking. There may be some things that have to be looked at and maybe separated.”

Plenty Of Challenges

No one has to remind Archey of the challenges that still remain for the World Baseball Classic. In his role with Major League Baseball, he remains deeply involved with (and protective of) the event on every level.

That’s why however successful the WBC is again this time on the international stage, no matter how many times he circles the globe and accumulates an obscene total of air miles, Archey understands the event cannot truly grow up until the U.S. market fully buys in.

“At this point it’s fair to say the World Baseball Classic brand and the tournament probably means more internationally,” Archey says, “if you look at viewership numbers and the attention that it has received here in the first two (stagings).”

He points to the 7-7 combined record for Team USA under managers Buck Martinez (2006) and Davey Johnson (2009) as one of the primary reasons for that interest lag on these shores.

Mexico eliminated the United States in the second round in 2006. Four years ago, Japan sent Team USA home in the semifinals.

“They haven’t won one, so we haven’t had a chance to see them play in the finals against Japan or Cuba or the Dominican,” Archey says. “We’re still building on that. Probably right now you could say that’s our biggest challenge—for this country. That same challenge doesn’t exist in many other (WBC) countries.”

With that in mind, Archey’s office prepared a “Fact or Fiction?” release for media and MLB organizations that seeks to dispel what he terms the “five biggest myths” of the WBC.

Among the surprising findings:

• Of the 73 players on the majors’ Opening Day disabled list in 2009, just two (Ichiro Suzuki and Dutch righthander Rick VandenHurk) participated in that year’s WBC.

• Players who did not participate in the 2009 WBC were nearly twice as likely to spend time on the DL in the first month of the regular season. The April DL rate was 17.8 percent for non-WBC players compared to 9.5 percent for those who did play in the WBC.

• In 2009, 52 MLB All-Stars competed in the WBC. Their combined résumés featured 10 MVP awards and four Cy Young awards.

• The eight major league clubs that had at least five players participating in the 2009 WBC had a combined April record of 96-79 (.549).

“A lot of people want to talk about the players who aren’t there,” Seiler says, “but nobody wants to talk about the fact Shane Victorino is sending me a text on Christmas Day saying, ‘Hey, what are my chances of being on the team?’ Or that David Wright was the one of the first players to commit. There is energy from the players.”

That WBC “myth-busting” release also attempted to quiet those who would still clamor for a major scheduling adjustment such as a July culmination. While Archey admits there isn’t a “perfect time” to hold the WBC, he and the 15-member WBC steering committee remain committed to a March conclusion.

“This isn’t just a Major League Baseball event; this is a global tournament,” Archey says.

“While (July) may work for us because we’re at our all-star break, you’ve got Japan, you have (South) Korea, you have Cuba, Taiwan, Australia and other countries who are in different places in their leagues and their competitions.”

Japan, for instance, would not only have to interrupt and reconfigure its professional season in order to make a WBC-in-July plan work, it would have to build in additional time on either side of the event in order for its players to “re-acclimate and re-start their season,” Archey points out.

All of this would be done with no guarantee of participation in that stage of the WBC, which only figures to become less predictable as the gospel of baseball continues to spread to new corners of the globe.

There also would be the added expense of a potential second trip to North America, no small consideration when factoring in the millions Major League Baseball already spends to transport, house, feed, insure and otherwise subsidize ballplayers from the 28 countries that participate in the WBC.

“I’m not sure separating the tournament into two parts like that is a great thing,” Archey says. “Once you start to lay out all the pros and cons of moving it to different times, March always comes back as the best time.

“It’s not ideal. It’s not perfect for everyone, but it’s certainly the best time when you look at getting the most players involved as a lead-in to our season and the business side. It’s not just (about) our league.”

Baseball, it seems, now belongs to the world, no matter what the International Olympic Committee believes.

That becomes a little more obvious with each passing World Baseball Classic.  

As the smiling face of Brazilian baseball official Jorge Otsuka can attest.

Mike Berardino is a freelance writer based in South Florida