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World Baseball Classic Isn't Perfect, But It Should Continue

March 15, 2017
I understand the criticism. The event occurs at an inopportune time. It's somewhat of a publicity stunt. It could accelerate injuries, causing more harm than good.

I get all of that, and yet count me in as someone who supports and enjoys the World Baseball Classic -- Major League Baseball's stab at a professional world championship.

Is it kitschy? Yes. Does it interrupt the flow of spring training and put players in unnecessary jeopardy? Perhaps.

Is it considerably more important to other countries than it is to the United States? Without a doubt.

So, why do I like it?

Like most Americans, I don't know what baseball is like outside of the United States and Canada. I've never experienced a game in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or Japan or Korea.

But I have seen some of the most rabid baseball countries face each other in the World Baseball Classic. I covered the first one in 2006 near Orlando, Fla., and in San Diego, and, to this day, it was one of the coolest events I have attended.

The first WBC game I covered provided me with a sense of Caribbean baseball, a carnival constructed around a diamond at Disney's World Wide of Sports complex in March 2006.

It was, indeed, the happiest place on earth. A congo-drum-banging, vuvuzela-blowing, hip-shaking crowd danced and sang and cheered and jeered as the Dominican Republic bashed Venezuela, 11-5. David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre each homered twice, and Miguel Cabrera homered once, three future Hall of Famers going deep in one game.

That contest was a who's who of Latino ballplayers: Bartolo Colon and Johan Santana were the starting pitchers; Omar Vizquel, Victor Martinez, Albert Pujols and Miguel Tejada, among others, also played.

And though it was an exhibition game, you couldn't tell by the mood of the crowd or the intensity of the players. The Dominicans were thrilled by the victory; the Venezuelans were choking back emotions as they promised to move forward.

It was tremendous theater. And so were the semifinals in San Diego.

Team Cuba, which was dealing with defection concerns, won, 3-1, against the mighty Dominicans and celebrated as if it had captured the World Series. I remember interviewing Tejada after the game and he was crestfallen, completely in shock that his lineup-for-the-ages couldn't score more than one run against the Cubans.

In the other semifinal, Japan was victorious, 6-0, thanks to a three-hitter thrown by a control artist named Koji Uehara. I asked scouts about the right-hander at the time and was told his stuff wouldn't play in the States. Three years later, Uehara made his major league debut with the Orioles. He turns 42 April 3 and is still pitching, now as a reliever with the Chicago Cubs.

Japan won that first WBC, beating Cuba, 10-6; Daisuke Matsuzaka, who later starred for the Boston Red Sox, picked up the win. Japan won the next one, too, in 2009, and the Dominicans captured its first WBC crown in 2013. Team USA has never finished higher than fourth.

A sold-out crowd watched that first finale in San Diego, and more than 737,000 attended the 39 games in Japan, Puerto Rico and the United States in 2006. The attendance has been similar in the two WBC tournaments since: 801,408 in 2009 and 781,438 in 2013.

And that's really what this is about, attracting fan interest, whether that's for marketing and merchandising purposes or developing participation in the game throughout the world.

This year's tournament started with a bang when Team Israel, consisting mostly of minor leaguers and former fringe major leaguers with Jewish ancestry, upset both host South Korea and the equally formidable Chinese Taipei.

Israel's upset win of Korea was the lead story on many sports websites the following day, and it was just an exhibition between players most casual fans don't know (former big league pitcher Jason Marquis and first baseman Ike Davis are the headliners for Team Israel).

Those exciting moments will always be weighed against the risks major league teams take by allowing their players to participate in a competitive tournament just a few weeks into spring training. Injuries are at the forefront of those concerns dating back to the first WBC, when Washington Nationals reliever Luis Ayala, who was competing for his club's closer's job, was lost for the year in March after injuring his elbow while pitching for Team Mexico.

Most veteran baseball men, including Orioles manager Buck Showalter, are torn when it comes to the WBC. They hate the risk factor and losing players for several weeks during spring training, but unquestionably there is significant international pride involved. Especially outside the United States, where countries want to see if they can measure up with the American team.

The problem with that rationale, though, is Team USA never has all of its top players on the field. Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Zach Britton aren't on this year's squad. Tampa Bay's Chris Archer leads the rotation and the offense boasts Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton, among others.

I recently asked former Orioles great and current MASN broadcaster Rick Dempsey whether he liked the World Baseball Classic, and his response was indicative of what many people inside the game think. It's good for the game. And it isn't.

"I think the timing is awful. For spring training, you just take such a chance of guys not really being ready to play,” Dempsey said. "All players are competitive and they're going to give you 110 percent, and to [have a guy get hurt] or weaken your pitching staff in a series that really, overall, isn't all that important, it's not like the regular World Series.

"It is important to these other countries, but to the players here in the United States, it's not as important. So, I don't know. It's a real tough call, one way or the other. It is [important] to a certain extent, but you're not getting players at their very, very best at the start of spring training, anyway.”

Some have suggested Major League Baseball would be better served scheduling the World Baseball Classic after the World Series. But I don't think so. This country, anyway, is knee-deep into football by then. The interest would be limited. Many players will be tired and decline invitations. It would become baseball's version of the NFL's Pro Bowl. And forget about having it before spring training or during the season; those are really bad ideas.

To me, there are two choices: Keep it the same and have the WBC every four years during spring training or bag it completely.

I think there's enough reason to keep it going. Team Israel provided an excellent example for why the WBC matters this year. We've seen glimpses of that every WBC. I know I witnessed it up close in 2006.

It's not perfect, but I, for one, think the WBC should be here to stay.

Issue 231: March 2017