Friday, March 06, 2009

A Baseball Fan's Thoughts on the WBC

I was mousing around the World Baseball Classic website last night, looking for reasons to be interested. Here's the best I could do:

*Yulieski, Yunesky, Yadier, Yolexis, Yosbany, Yuliesky, Yoennis. Y-names were hip in Cuba in the 1980s.
*Cuba has a 6'-0", 260-pound catcher (named Yosbany). I'd pay money to watch a guy that size work behind the plate. God bless him — there are multiple knee surgeries in his future.

*On paper, it looks like Venezuela has blown by Puerto Rico in terms of baseball talent.

That's really about it. The reasons not to care about this tournament are abundant. It starts with the composition of the teams. Another "Ys Guy," Yuniesky Betancourt, is the Mariners' starting shortstop and should be on the Cuban team. But he and any other major league defectors weren't invited. Politics, politics, politics. Contrast the Italian roster, which, per the tournament's quirky eligibility rules, features guys like Lenny DiNardo (Place of Birth: Miami, Florida), Mark DiFelice (POB: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), Frank Catalanotto (POB: Smithtown, New York) and Chris Cooper (really? Chris Cooper? POB: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Under WBC rules, if you're eligible to be issued a passport from that country (a factor that is keyed entirely to the laxity of that nation's laws), you're eligible to play on that country's baseball team. I know that a fair amount of "carpetbagging" persists in FIFA's international tournaments, too, but this seems especially out of order, and I don't doubt the purpose of it is to populate rosters to fill out the tournament's sixteen-team field.

Still more problematic is the watered-down nature of the competition. The best of the best don't necessarily play in the tournament; major league teams will do what they can to keep their players out of it; the games are played early on in spring training, when the players are hardly at the peak of their conditioning. The tournament has a rule that imposes pitch counts on national team managers: 70 pitches max in the first round, 85 in the second, 100 in the semifinals and finals — with mandated days of rest between appearances. Some kinks in the format have been worked out: advancement from the first round won't be decided by bizarre tiebreakers, as in the last tournament. The bracket is altogether decipherable, though, so I call it a wash.

The FIFA World Cup works because even though it's club play that finances the sport — and the club owners have millions invested in the fragile knees and ankles of the players on their payrolls — every one of the players would sacrifice life and limb to play for his national team and win the Cup Final. The players are all-in, and the club owners aren't politically in a position to keep their players out of the tournament. Simply put, the World Cup is more important than the club leagues, whereas the WBC is a creature of Major League Baseball, and its subordination to MLB is written into its charter, all the way down to the last, detail-heavy regulation about how often and how long the national teams can play their pitchers.

It's possible that someday the WBC will grow into a World Cup-quality competition. It would need to step out from under MLB's thumb, and the players — not some of them, all of them — will have to care enough to put their bodies, and their million-dollar paydays, on the line, to vie for the honor of lifting the championship trophy for their country. I won't hold my breath. In the meantime, I'll tune in not for the drama of the competition, but for the novelty: say, of watching an all "Ys-Guys" battery — Yulieski pitching to Yosbany, and the massive Yosbany using his gravitational field to block a splitter in the dirt.


Mithridates said...

World Cup soccer started long before the best players in the world made millions of dollars (well, billions of Reais anyway). The players and owners didn't have much to lose. By the time everyone got rich, the Cup had already achieved enough prestige to keep everyone involved.

It's too late for the WBC. No one will ever care that much. The players and owners are more concerned about doing spring training right, and as a fan I'd take a 1% increase in my team's chances of winning the Series over a thousand US WBC trophies.

Add to that the fact that single-elimination simply doesn't work for baseball. Baseball needs lots of games to sort out the better team. On a given day even the lowly Devil Rays have a 30-40% chance of beating the mighty Yankees (what's that you say? 60-70%?).

Until there are enough countries with their own players. Until the bet talent plays. Until there's enough commitment for playoff series. Until . . .

I love baseball, but I honestly don't give a rat's ass about the WBC. And I'm heading to Tampa for some spring training in a week. Some of the best players will be off at the WBC. So I take it back. I do care about the WBC. I want it to go away.

Anonymous said...

How about the Dutch eh?

Mithridates said...

Lucky Dutch. Infield hit, a couple errors, and boom, three runs in the first that stand up.

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