Memo For MLB

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

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.