March Gladness: Further Thoughts on the World Baseball Classic
It isn’t always pretty, the timing stinks, the umpiring is spotty, the pitch count limits are a drag, many of the games are half-attended and God only knows what the TV ratings are, but I’d still rather watch The Kingdom of the Netherlands battle Chinese Tapei in the World Baseball Classic than one inning of a totally meaningless spring training game.
I know I’m not alone on this, though I often have to coax baseball friends into watching this tournament, now wrapping up its third year. Many tweeters and Facebook commenters I’ve read either degrade the event entirely or use it as a platform to reveal their knee-jerk jingoism. It’s a shame, because despite the overflow crowds and national media attention of the World Series, nine of the last ten Fall Classics haven’t been as competitively gripping as this past week of the WBC.
It’s easy to understand America’s blasé attitude toward the thing. Due to the unfortunate March timing of the event, many of the best U.S. players opt out of the WBC and limber up at their Florida and Arizona camps. (Of course, this doesn’t stop many good Latin players from playing for their countries, but we’ll get to that a little later.) Many baseball fans are so plugged into their home teams and plugged into their spring trainings that re-shifting their focus onto a three-week tournament seems weird and unnecessary.
Me? I just like watching meaningful baseball, no matter the time of year. And when 35,000-plus fans in Tokyo are making a racket as their Japan team of all-stars is slap-hitting someone else to death, when Dominicans dance on the field and in the Miami stands after pulling out another tight pitching battle because the games mean so much to their national pride, it’s hard not to get absorbed. Despite gobs of money spent by MLB to promote the tournament, interest here is barely minimal, and I don’t even think the success of a U.S. team would tip the balance with spring training just around the corner. The event has to be moved to a different time.
But when? A few pieces I read suggested dumping our All-Star game and doing it as a week-long single elimination tournament in the middle of July. I love that idea, seeing how over-hyped and boring the All-Star Game has become, but it would also be tough to jettison a fan-interest event that’s been going since 1933 and probably the only all-star game most sports fans seem to care about.
I would vote for staging the WBC in November, a week or so after the World Series ends, and play it in the same domes or warm weather cities it’s in now. Many baseball fans are still on an adrenalin kick following the Series, and would likely welcome another round of exciting games. I would bet many more players, in better shape than in March, would also be willing to play in it. We’re not exactly talking about the Pro Bowl here.
That said, I would change up the format and make it a quick 16-team single elimination tournament. The weird World Cup-style “pool” seeding is too complicated and loses potential viewers before the event even gets rolling. March Madness is a yearly monster hit for a good, simplified reason.
The current odd setup doesn’t stop most countries from taking it seriously, though. In Japan, players have to try out to make the team, and risk not “making the cut.” Over 500 Japanese journalists were on hand at AT&T Park to watch their shocking semifinal loss to Puerto Rico.
On our end? Bleh. Right now, as Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated has made abundantly clear in his columns and newsletter, the WBC is merely “a marketing event, not a championship event.” If it were the latter, U.S. players would be stumbling over each other to play, and a competent baseball man would be hired to field manage the team. Joe Torre, using outdated and wrongheaded small ball tactics and baffling bullpen management, almost single-handedly eliminated his team from the tournament last week.
The guys who did play—R. A. Dickey, Adam Jones, Eric Hosmer, David Wright before he went out with a bad back—gave it their all and did seem to care about winning, but they were no match for the loose, fevered dugouts on the Latin side of the field, and whatever rooting sections we had may as well have been watching a slide show in a local library.
I turned to the front of the L.A. Times sports section today, looking for how they treated the amazing upset of two-time champ Japan in the WBC semi-final the night before. One-half of the page was the L.A. Marathon, a third of the page was a Lakers win over last-place Sacramento. There was a Clippers story, an NFL meetings story, and a story on a tennis match in Indian Wells. News of the Puerto Rico/Japan game was reduced to a thumb-sized blurb in a little table of contents box in the lower part of the page. Obviously you can’t force people to get excited about something they clearly have minimal interest in, but seeing we invented the damn sport, I find America’s lack of caring about the World Baseball Classic a growing embarrassment.
Granted, the tournament is still in its infancy. As Sheehan predicts, 2017 will be the year the U.S. finally fields a fantastic team, because “MLB loves fixing that which isn’t really broken in an effort to placate a media completely unwilling to address complex, multi-faceted issues in all but the most simple of terms.” In other words, we’ll be sufficiently humiliated by then for MLB to make significant alterations to the event and make it more critical that we win.
In the meantime, I’m thoroughly enjoying this infancy. Moments after the Puerto Rican team, bolstered by gutty relief pitching and a moon shot home run by Alex Rios, beat the Japanese 3-1 to advance to the championship game, the entire Japan squad filed out to the third base file line, doffed their caps and bowed to their victors. Then they turned and bowed to the grandstand.
And I got the chills.