Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why the WBC Is Good for Baseball

The World Baseball Classic has undeniably received more than its fair share of criticism and skepticism this spring. For a variety of reasons, the WBC has caused consternation with many managers, players, and fans. For example, just this week, several players have been injured, including Chipper Jones and Mark Lindstrom from the U.S. team. Other teams remain concerned that their star players are being overexposed for this point of spring training. For instance, a starting pitcher in the WBC, such as Daisuke Matsusaka, can throw up to 105 pitches in his next start. His counterparts in the Red Sox camp, such as Jon Lester, will likely be limited to 60 to 70 pitches.

The extra exposure, and the raised stakes of playing for one's country, has made WBC games a completely different animal than a regular spring training affair. Most notably, the players are giving full effort, many for an entire nine innings. Consequently, some teams have held their stars off the WBC rosters to protect them from injury. Other players have asked to be taken off the rosters or not considered at all. What remains is, in many cases, a hodgepodge of players who are not, in fact, the very best players in the game from each country.

The initial idea behind the WBC was to create an international competition that included star-quality major league players. The idea was welcomed by many, especially after baseball was removed as an Olympic sport. The first go round, in 2006, was a rounding success for some countries but was a disappointment for the U.S. This year, the second WBC has gone much better for the U.S., and instead the goat of the Classic has been the Dominican Republic, who many expected to win.

One may ask--why should we, as fans of a MLB team, care about an international competition that does nothing to end, say, a 100-year championship drought? Further, why should we have our top players exposed to the increased risk of injury and overuse instead of regular, mid-March preparation for a six-month grind of a season?

For some, there may never be an adequate justification for taking premium players out of camp for an exhibition tournament. For this author, and likely many others, the WBC represents a compelling scenario where the top players in the game play for their respective countries for respect and pride. It is unbridled competition at its finest, and anyone that denies that should watch this year's Classic. For example, a Round 1 game between the U.S. and Canada played in Toronto drew a raucous crowd of more than 40,000--more than a usual crowd for a respectable Blue Jays team. Watching matchups between Asian powerhouses Japan and Korea and Latin powers such as Puerto Rico and Venezuela--where the players and fans are truly impassioned--is pure joy.

There are, of course, ways to make the WBC more receptive to teams and their players. First, playing the games in March is always going to be problematic. Players are often coming off injuries, or teams want to protect young stars from overwork. Often though, these very same players play winter league baseball following a full season. Hosting the WBC in November may be somewhat anticlimactic following the World Series, but for the players on the remaining 28 teams, and the fans thereof, the WBC would be welcomed.

An additional way to encourage fan involvement is to offer them the opportunity to vote on WBC rosters, much like the All Star game. And like the All Star game, the fans should only have the right to choose a portion of the players--the WBC squads must have the flexibility of a typical 25 man roster, including middle relievers and utility players.

Playing the WBC in November would entice more players to participate. While some players may be injured after a full MLB season, and others may have played deep into the postseason, a greater majority of the star quality players would be likely to participate versus the current March timeframe. Having top players participate makes the event that much more special to the fans, which ultimately drives the success of the WBC.

This fan will continue to enjoy the games, and of course hope that injury does not befall key Cubs performers such as Geovany Soto and Kosuke Fukudome.

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