Spring Classic? A World Class Idea

Tucson, Ariz. – It’s about time.

At least a decade after it should have debuted, the inaugural World Baseball Classic is finally underway.

Deride its shortcomings as you may, and there are many, but at its core, the WBC has finally created an international baseball tournament that includes many of the sport’s best players. And the game needs this.

Many of the world’s best players learned the game in nations as far apart as Venezuela and Japan. Roughly 20 percent of major leaguers hail from the Dominican Republic alone. Cuba took home the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. We have long since passed the time when Americans could lay claim to the game as ours alone.

Thus, as I kick off my annual Spring Training jaunt, I can’t help but wonder, why can’t the World Baseball Classic be baseball’s World Cup? Why can’t there be a Spring Classic that is as significant as the ‘World’ Series?

As an international sport, baseball falls far short of soccer in terms of world-wide appeal. But the game absolutely rivals, even exceeds soccer’s popularity in certain parts of the globe.

As the major leagues, far and away the world’s premier baseball organization, become more and more populated by non-Americans, it’s obvious that the game has significant roots embedded far beyond U.S. borders. When big-spending clubs, such as the New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves, race to set up academies in Latin American hotbeds, hoping to mine talent that doesn’t have to enter the amateur draft, you know that the game has gone international to stay.

While Americans, or at least the baseball fans among us, may casually browse the WBC’s results or check out Team USA on television, the event has generated very little passion, even in the days leading up to yesterday’s first pitch. But don’t think for a second that the average Joe, or Jose, in Caracas, Venezuela, hasn’t been eagerly anticipating the chance to see his countrymen take on the Dominicans. You’d be vastly mistaken if you think Japanese fans and players aren’t itching to show the rest of the world, and especially the Americans that brought them the game, just how strong their team is.

The Caribbean Series has long been a favorite of Latin American major leaguers and the entire region’s fans, but pitting the best baseball nations against each other in the WBC represents a unique opportunity.

“It’s special,” Ronnie Belliard of the Cleveland Indians and the Dominican Republic’s team told USA Today. “I’ve been on national teams before, but this is bigger; more prestigious.”

While it certainly won’t occur in its debut, the WBC has the potential to take on World Cup significance within the sport of baseball. The Beckhams and Ronaldos of the world make ample money playing for their ‘club’ teams, but when they don their nation’s colors every four years, competition takes on a whole new meaning. National pride trumps all.

Of course, in the case of baseball, the majors are so far ahead of every other league that the WBC will be dominated by big leaguers of different nationalities, whereas the global popularity of soccer ensures a multitude of top leagues and means the best players often meet only in international competition. So baseball admittedly has a way to go before it can truly stage a World Cup-level tournament, but such an effort is long overdue.

As with any undertaking of this magnitude, the first WBC will essentially be a trial run. Concerns range from the potential for a star player to get hurt, to creative eligibility requirements, to the timing of the Classic.

The injury factor, of course, looms as it does whenever a player takes the field. But stepping beyond the self-interested major league owner or fan’s standpoint, it doesn’t seem any more significant than a player getting hurt in the normal preparation for or competition in his season, big league or otherwise. Yes, players will be playing at full throttle earlier than they may be accustomed to, but a player making the committment to play in the WBC should step up his off-season training to hit the field game-ready from Day No. 1. And it’s not as if star players don’t go down in Spring Training. Bottom line: Sustaining an injury while playing for your national team has the same effect as coming up lame in any other case.

Because the WBC is Major League Baseball’s baby, tournament organizers attempted to get quality players on as many of the 16 teams as possible, especially the weaker ones, such as the Netherlands and Italy. At the surface, more competitive teams sounds great, but stretching eligibility requirements to allow players to play for a nation for which they have only a distant ancestral relation is ridiculous. Citizenship should be required, just as in the Olympics.

In reality, an eight-team field, or perhaps 12, seems more appropriate for a World Baseball Classic, at least in 2006. But the long-term credibility of the event and the development of the game demand opening the doors to South Africa and China, among others. And this is baseball: Anything can happen in a single game.

On that note, though it enters the tournament as the favorite, Team USA could very easily beaten by the powerhouse Dominicans or Venezuelans. No question. The Puerto Ricans have more than enough offense to garner a title and the Japanese have sent enough players to the majors that it would be folly to overlook them. And the most intriguing team? The darkhorse Cuban squad. No one knows what to expect, so it will be fascinating to watch the games unfold.

As for when to stage the Classic, name a better time. After the World Series? Yep, that would be great. A full month after the bulk of major leaguers have played their last game. No injury risk there.

During the middle of the summer? In theory, a great idea. But in its infant form, the WBC doesn’t carry anywhere near the weight to force a hiatus in the major league season. Down the road, a mid-summer Classic may occur, but not until other nations develop leagues that rival MLB.

In truth, the World Baseball Classic, in its ideal form, would be able to name its date and have players and leagues from around the world clear their schedules. That’s the clout I hope the tournament ultimately pulls.

But for now, I’ll be content to go along with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s hope that these next 16 days will be a watershed moment in the game’s history.

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