02 March 2009


The second World Baseball Classic opens this week with Pool A play (the four East Asian countries) at the Tokyo Dome. The Baseball Think Factory newsblog has ongoing coverage and previews.

Even with the surprising success of the first WBC, the second go-round has still been marred by a number of high-profile player withdrawals, a problem that's not likely to recede anytime soon. Owners are reticent to allow their precious investments to risk injury playing games that might be entertaining but which aren't going to make them any glorious short-term profit. Major League Baseball, the primary investor in the WBC, has attempted to put rules in place to bar teams from directly ordering their players not to participate, but this can't be easily enforced. All this considered, it will still be a pretty nice slate of players taking the field this week.

I expect ownership to think primarily in the interests of its athletic investments; unfortunately a lot of fans get ensnared in the same kinds of thoughts whenever one of these major international tournaments comes up, whether it's the WBC or NHL players at the Winter Olympics. I realize this is a serious of the American sportsfan culture but, frankly, if you've become too invested in the success of your Home Team that you can't have any fun apart from it, then you probably need to evaluate how seriously you take sports. Growing up as a baseball fan, I always fantasized about what a tournament made up of national all-star teams would be like. I remember an issue of USA Today's sadly belated Baseball Weekly in 1996 simulating a hypothetical Olympic field of big leaguers that stayed on my desk for months. It passes the Rule of Cool, and that's enough for me.

The WBC's chief problem is seasonal; there's really no ideal time to play it. As it stands now, the tournament is wedged alongside spring training, which makes for rusty play, pitch counts, and withdrawals from players who want to focus on making their big league club or nurse a previous season's injury back to health. You're also up against a busy sports calender including the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament over the semifinals. Ideally, the season could be halted for 2 and a half weeks in mid-July, as this would give us mid-season form and the full attention of the national sports media. However, there would still be plenty of pullouts from players liking the idea of a midseason vacation, and the season would have to be extended into March or November. As we've seen in recent years' World Series, the baseball schedule is already pushing the point of acceptable playing weather in many cities.

It would be nice if baseball had the international soccer, where the entire world of club play stops even for exhibition matches. But soccer has roughly a century of history established in that regard, and even that, I understand, is under threat from major clubs who want more power to restrict their star players from international matches. I'm not usually one to get all sentimental about sports being a business, but I can understand where that frustration comes from.