What is the World Baseball Classic missing?

(sorry to all you non-baseball fans out there, feel free to ignore if it’s not your thing)

Every four years, fans of soccer, basketball, and hockey gather in droves amidst massive media attention to celebrate their sport through a competitive, exciting international tournament. The World Cup, the Summer Olympics, and (to a slightly lesser though still significant extent) the Winter Olympics are traditionally three of the most hyped and most viewed events in the world and pit the best athletes in each respective sport against their foreign counterparts in one gigantic, memorable celebration of that sport’s international breadth. This March, countries from five different continents are gathering in the Southwestern US for just such a tournament to determine the world’s best team in the sport that is arguably second in the globe in terms of international appeal and…no one really seems to care.

I understood baseball being dropped from the Olympics. Obviously it wasn’t a great moment for the sport, but it made sense; why hold an international tournament for a sport during the middle of the season (even though hockey and soccer seem to make it work)? Even with this change, however, the World Baseball Classic received (and continues to receive) very little attention from the media and fans in the United States. Several reasons, including the relative youth of the tournament (it only began in 2006), exist to explain this, but none are more important than the fact that some of the best players in the world refuse to participate in an event that takes place directly before the Major League Baseball season. If they don’t care enough to play in it, why should we as fans care enough to follow it?

Obviously, each superstar athlete who declines to play in the tournament has their own personal reason, but the one main theme from this lack of participation seems to be the gaping shortage of competent pitchers–a troubling factor when the old baseball cliché “Baseball is 90% pitching” is considered. Too often do I turn one of these tournament games on and witness a 20-run slugfest that makes me cringe and crave the balanced offensive-defensive contest that turned “America’s Pastime” into an international spectacle. So what’s keeping the pitchers away?

This is where the WBC really separates itself from the other quadrennial tournaments. Obviously, some kind of preparatory warm-up period is required for an athlete in any sport to compete at their peak ability but this “spring training” is especially key for baseball players–pitchers in particular. In a normal season, starting pitchers will begin Spring Training throwing

Was that a 10-year-old pitching?

around 30 pitches a game and slowly, week-by-week, work their way up to the 100-120 pitches that represents their limit in a regular-season game. If they were to force themselves to be ready earlier in the year of a tournament, it is very likely that their arms won’t be able to handle the increased workload and their entire careers could be put into serious jeopardy. It is important to note that this isn’t the usual argument to say, a basketball player declining to play in the Olympics because “he might get hurt”–an accidental injury is much different from a planned overexertion of a pitcher’s incredibly valuable and fragile arm. Asking a superstar pitcher to be warmed up a month in advance is difficult as well due to baseball’s unique status as an exclusively outdoor sport (which makes winter training a nightmare) and is unfair to a man just trying to make a living who sticks to a strict, effective yearly workout plan that includes (necessary) extended periods of rest.

Therefore, even the most patriotic pitchers may not choose to participate in the tournament unless they have a guaranteed multi-year contract, and even then the thought of disappointing their professional team by becoming injured may discourage them. And as long as the pitching remains sub-par, so too will the WBC’s exposure. So what can be done to encourage the world’s best pitchers to participate fully? Currently, the WBC sets a limit on the number of pitches a single player can throw each game. This is effective in protecting star pitchers, but leads to a fragmented, turbulent type of game that isn’t really a true reflection of how baseball is played anywhere in the world. One potential idea is to condense the tournament slightly (or break it up into 2 round played over 2 years) and move it to the middle of July, towards the end of the MLB all-star break. The pitchers and all other players would be in midseason form, guaranteeing a competitive tournament, but the revenue losses for the MLB would be huge. This could be fixed by guaranteeing the MLB a large portion of ticket sales and TV advertisements, but an understandably large opposition exists to this in other countries where the games may be played. If the MLB season were just to be extended to allow a full season AND the World Baseball Classic, the World Series would end up stretching into early December–obviously not an ideal situation. Another, more unrealistic, option would be to insure individual pitchers and clubs who agree to participate fully in the tournament…again neither easy nor ideal.

This is a problem unique to the sport of baseball, and one which must be fixed if avid fans of America’s Pastime, like me, wish to see how the sport has evolved and matured internationally; baseball is a sport with many flavors–from the ultra-passionate, smashmouth streetball of the Latin American countries to the fundamental, highly professional style of Asia to North American baseball, which falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum–and it would be a shame if the world is not able to experience them all in one single, grand celebration of this great sport. Then again, highly competitive international competition is still relatively new to baseball, so maybe all it will take is time (and a few more early WBC exits for the United States) for the best pitchers in the world to adjust to the new calendar and learn how to pitch effectively in this window of time. For those of you who were able to stomach my baseball rantings while there is still snow on the ground, I’m curious to know how you perceive the world baseball classic. Did you know it was happening now or what teams are participating/favored? For the other baseball fans out there,what do you think it will take to make the World Baseball Classic the international spectacle it has the potential to be? Do you think it ever will reach that level? Should it?

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