March 24, 2009
WBC yet to hit its strideTournament taking off, but North America has yet to jump on the trolley
By KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The World Baseball Classic is kind of like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.
The second WBC is now in the books and while the concept is a good one, ripe with possibility, it has not yet come close to realizing its potential, especially within North America. The concern is that it never will.
The irony is that Major League Baseball is the engine behind the tournament, visualizing it as a marketing vehicle to grow the game and the MLB brand all over the globe. At the same time, the chief problem with the event is the unavailability of so many major-leaguers, either because of disinterest or because of pressure, real or implied, from the clubs that employ them.
The other major problem is the timing of the event, at a time of the year when the big leagues are just beginning to prepare for the gruelling 162-game season. Unfortunately, without altering the structure of the MLB season, it's March or never.
That said, in huge baseball markets like Japan, Korea, Cuba and the other Latin American countries, interest is extremely high.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston likes the idea, but has trouble seeing how the North American teams can compete unless they make a greater commitment.
"I'm a fan of it," he said. "I just think until you get the right players to go, it's going to end up like it has. The teams that are winning are guys that play together and they have their best players there. Until we go out and commit and get our best pitchers there and pitch, it's not going to change.
"It might just be one of those things that they have to start a little bit earlier, some way, get the team together and start a little bit earlier. You need to do that if you're going to compete."
The hesitance of the MLB teams to embrace the WBC is at least understandable. The commissioner's office has decreed that teams cannot forbid their players from playing in the WBC. But that doesn't stop GMs and owners from quietly asking players, especially during contract negotiations, not to participate.
And if you're a pitcher signing a four-year $60-million US contract are you seriously going to dismiss the wishes of the people who are signing that cheque? A team's entire season can be ruined before it starts by a serious injury to a key player.
Now, injuries can and do happen in spring training but MLB teams would much prefer to at least have all their important assets under their own control, not at the whim of a disinterested manager.
Many alternative formats have been discussed. One that makes sense involves whittling the field down with an early qualification round during or just before spring training, then holding the semi-finals and finals as part of all-star week in July. On, say, the Monday of all-star week, the WBC semi-final would be staged. Tuesday could be the all-star game itself and then Wednesday the WBC final.
For now, though, those options are all just idle chatter. Baseball, especially MLB, is an institution very suspicious of rapid change. It moves with the lightning speed of an advancing glacier.
The tournament in its current format makes money and it has served its purpose in creating excitement around the world. Just not North America.
Very few of the players who have made the commitment to participate have been disappointed with the experience. Baseball players seldom get to play for their countries and the esprit de corps that develops in a short time is exhilarating, according to people like Matt Stairs and Justin Morneau and even Chipper Jones (as long as the games aren't played in Toronto).
The world is catching the spirit. It's time for North America to join the party.