Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How Not To Fix The World Baseball Classic

There's still smoke and confetti in the air following Japan's thrilling extra-innings win over Korea in last night's World Baseball Classic final. The trophy engraver's tools are still warm, the players have yet to return to their professional clubs, and yet a chorus is already in full throat. The WBC is broken, sayeth the nays, and here's how you fix it.

Everyone seems to have a solution to the problem--hold it during a different time of year, mix up the format, force the best players to participate. The possible changes are infinite, but the impetus for these critics' frustration is identical: Their team lost.

Had the United States managed to win this tournament, the conventional wisdom would have been that it's fine--at least until the first big WBC star suffered an injury this season. I'm sure that the Dominican blogscape is even more vitriolic, after the DR was dumped in the first round by a motley nine from various Dutch colonies. Conversely, I doubt many Japanese or Korean pundits have a beef with the WBC's current landscape.

My only hangup is with the captain of this ship, one Allan H. "Bud" Selig. As with most pivotal decisions Bud has made, the WBC has infuriated me in execution while pleasing me in substance. If we could only lessen Bud's grip on this tournament, it might end up just about right.

Look, I wanted to win just as badly as any other American fan. I suffered through appearances by our starting pitchers, guys who are normally dominant but looked rusty and rotten this March. I too wished that aces such as C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon could have found their way onto the roster.

The U.S. also went through a long dry spell in international basketball, but we were able to remedy that at the Beijing Olympics. This country should realize that we can't just roll out an all-star team and expect to dominate the world. Our size and wealth offers us tremendous advantages, but hinders us as well. Japan is the most homogeneous society in the world, free from our racial, linguistic and regional differences. It's far easier for Japan to assemble a team that acts as a cohesive unit than it is for the U.S.

But those are provincial problems with specific American players, not structural deficiencies in the event.

The largest issue, for every nation but particularly for those that rely on MLB players, is the readiness of pitching. This is an enormous crapshoot, as pitching tends to be in any short-format playoff. How else can you explain how Freddy Garcia was a postseason stud for the 2005 World Champion White Sox, yet was dogshit before and has been dogshit since?

Major league pitchers are used to ramping up their workload during March. Starters will toss an inning or so in their first few appearances and gradually add to their pitch counts. It's only this week that you're seeing pitchers in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues turn in appearances that approximate what they'll show in the regular season.

Pitchers also use March to try goofy shit, because the games don't matter. Zach Greinke of the Royals has been dabbling with a new changeup grip and getting absolutely torched. If that grip is ready for Opening Day he'll add it to his arsenal, if not he'll scrap it when the games count. The point is that Spring Training is the only chance these guys get to experiment with unproven tricks under game conditions.

So by running the WBC throughout the month of March, you do a couple things with pitching. You throw players who have yet to work into shape into the fire before they're ready--how else can you explain Carlos Marmol getting lit up by the Netherlands? You also remove their built-in laboratory for tinkering. The results can be erratic.

The best potential solution I've heard comes via Jayson Stark of the four-letter. He wants to distill the monthlong grind of the current WBC into a one-week sprint at the end of March, when pitchers should be approaching peak form. You'd play games every day at multiple sites, eliminating the numerous off days that had participants bitching about sporadic workloads. You'd end up with a final four, and you'd play the semis and finals during a lengthened All-Star break in July--when interest in baseball is at its peak and the players are literally in midseason form. I think it's brilliant, but it will never happen.

That's because Bud Selig and his fellow owners are the most short-sighted gang of rich people alive. Every decision baseball makes is focused only on the immediate dollar, never the long-term growth of the game. Shortening or suspending the season to accommodate the WBC are off the table, because owners will not sacrifice game revenue. This is also the primary reason that baseball has been booted from the Olympics in 2012--Bud and his cronies refuse to plan around a break in the season as the NHL has done.

Selig shouldn't take all the blame for the sorry state of international baseball--the players' union is devious and obstinate on this issue as well. They've stonewalled drug testing for decades, as we know, and even with all the strides baseball has made on doping the union still refuses to allow Olympic-standard testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Blood testing for possible HGH detection is similarly opposed. The international sports community looks at professional baseball in America as a dirty game run by crooks, because it is. Fuck, even cycling has more credibility.

The idea of a World Baseball Classic is fantastic, and as we've seen in 2006 and this spring, the world can play. High-level ball is being played by athletes from dozens of countries. If we approached this tournament with integrity, instead of only looking for American TV viewership and merchandise sales, it could grow into a true classic.