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World Baseball Classic is a sham

CLEARWATER — Some ideas seem so perfect, so smack-upside-the-head obvious, that you wonder how they could have gone unrealized for so long. The World Baseball Classic is that kind of idea.

The premise is simple. Take the game's greatest players, strip away wealth, fame and stats and replace it all with national pride, and then wait for the kind of memories that can't possibly be bought or scripted.

It seems priceless. It sounds marvelous. And then you sit in a spring training stadium and watch the U.S. team in its final warmup game before the tournament, and you understand the entire thing is a sham.

And I mean that in the nicest way possible. It is not a malicious sham, or even an intentional sham. It is a sham of inevitability because an international baseball tournament is impossible to pull off.

Mark Teixeria might dispute that, but he's not here. Neither is C.C. Sabathia. Or Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum or Cliff Lee. Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels were here, but they're still playing for the Phillies.

Which kind of goes to the heart of the argument against the WBC. So many players have chosen not to participate that the results of the tournament are close to meaningless.

Not that baseball officials acknowledge that. They would have you believe this is the World Cup of their sport. They want you to accept this as a legitimate alternative to baseball in the Olympics. It is not. And it is not even really close.

When an Italy or a Brazil wins the World Cup, there is a genuine sense that the nation has proven itself to have the greatest soccer team on the globe for that summer. Whichever team wins the WBC will have proven nothing.

If Puerto Rico advances from Pool D is it really an accomplishment when you know Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Placido Polanco, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano declined invitations for the Dominican Republic?

If the United States is bounced from the tournament after blowing a ninth-inning lead, would you wonder whether things might have been different if Jonathan Papelbon, Brad Lidge, B.J. Ryan or Joe Nathan had been there?

The good folks at Baseball Prospectus take great care in determining which major league players provide the greatest value to their teams each season. Using their calculations from last season, only 8 of the top 20 position players are participating in the Classic. And only 2 of the top 20 pitchers. That suggests 90 percent of the elite pitchers are skipping the tournament.

And I don't blame a single one of them. It's absolutely appropriate that they have a greater obligation to the teams paying them millions, and the local fans counting on them to be ready to go on opening day.

Front offices may not have a big problem with a third baseman or a leftfielder in the Classic, but there is not a general manager in the league who is happy about a pitcher throwing full-tilt in March before his arm is tuned up. A number of pitchers came up lame in 2006 after the inaugural WBC, and a lot of people pointed to the unnatural rush to get ready.

And here's the real issue:

There is no cure to the problem.

You can't move the WBC to the fall. There's no way MLB would want it competing with the playoffs in October and, by November, no team is going to want a pitcher to start throwing again a month after a full season.

And having a tournament in the middle of a season is out of the question. Unlike most other sports, baseball's regular season is sacred. It has remained virtually intact for more than a century, and no fabricated event is worth messing that up.

So that leaves spring training. And it leaves us with this pretend event.

I'm not saying people won't watch. It will draw some large crowds in other countries, and it will sell lots of T-shirts and hats. And I suppose that is the greatest aim of the baseball folks who want to talk about the globalization of the sport.

Just don't sell it as something it is not. Like memorable. Or meaningful.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

CLEARWATER

Some ideas seem so perfect, so smack-upside-the-head obvious, that you wonder how they could have gone unrealized for so long. The World Baseball Classic is that kind of idea. The premise is simple. Take the game's greatest players, strip away wealth, fame and stats, replace it all with national pride, and then wait for the kind of memories that can't possibly be bought or scripted. It seems priceless. It sounds marvelous. And then you sit in a spring training stadium and watch the U.S. team in its final warmup game before the tournament and you understand the entire thing is a sham. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. It is not a malicious sham, or even an intentional sham. It is a sham of inevitability, because an international

baseball tournament is impossible to pull off.

Mark Teixeira might dispute that, but he's not here. Neither is CC Sabathia. Or Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum or Cliff Lee. Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels are here, but they're still playing for the Phillies.

Which kind of goes to the heart of the argument against the World Baseball Classic. So many players have chosen not to participate that the results are close to meaningless.

Not that baseball officials acknowledge that. They would have you believe this is the World Cup of their sport. They want you to accept this as a legitimate alternative to baseball in the Olympics. It is not. And it is not even really close.

When an Italy or a Brazil wins the World Cup, there is a genuine sense that the nation has proven itself to have the greatest soccer team on the globe for that summer. Whichever team wins the World Baseball Classic will have proven nothing.

If Puerto Rico advances from Pool D, is it really an accomplishment when you know Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Placido Polanco, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano declined invitations to play for the Dominican Republic?

If the United States is bounced from the tournament after blowing a ninth-inning lead, would you wonder whether things might have been different if Jonathan Papelbon, Brad Lidge, B.J. Ryan or Joe Nathan had been there?

The good folks at Baseball Prospectus take great care in determining which major-league players provide the greatest value to their teams each season. Using their calculations from last season, only eight of the top 20 position players are participating in the classic. And only two of the top 20 pitchers. That suggests 90 percent of the elite pitchers are skipping the tournament.

And I don't blame a single one of them. It's absolutely appropriate that they have a greater obligation to the teams paying them millions and the local fans counting on them to be ready to go on opening day.

Front offices may not have a big problem with a third baseman or a leftfielder in the classic, but not one general manager in the league is happy about a pitcher throwing full tilt in March before his arm is tuned up. A number of pitchers came up lame in 2006 after the inaugural classic, and a lot of people pointed to the unnatural rush to get ready.

And here's the real issue:

There is no cure for the problem.

You can't move the classic to the fall. There's no way Major League Baseball would want it competing with the playoffs in October, and by November, no team is going to want a pitcher to start throwing again a month after a full season.

And having a tournament in the middle of a season is out of the question. Unlike most other sports, baseball's regular season is sacred. It has remained virtually intact for more than a century, and no fabricated event is worth messing that up.

So that leaves spring training. And it leaves us with this pretend event.

I'm not saying people won't watch. It will draw some large crowds in other countries, and it will sell lots of T-shirts and hats. And I suppose that is the greatest aim of the baseball folks who want to talk about the globalization of the sport.

Just don't sell it as something it is not. Like memorable. Or meaningful.

World Baseball Classic is a sham 03/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 6, 2009 6:52am]
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