Defending The World Baseball Classic
Some of the criticisms of the upcoming World Baseball Classic just don’t make sense. The newly organized tournament, which will debut this March, has been attacked on several fronts. Yet, none of the three major criticisms hold much water.
The World Baseball Classic can’t be taken seriously because all of the pitchers will be on pitch counts. Well, on this issue, we’ve got news for you: major league pitchers are on pitch counts in every regular season game–and in every postseason game, including the World Series, and that includes both starters and relievers. So in a general sense, there’s very little difference. In today’s game, most starters are held to a limit of 100-120 pitches, and relievers are usually maxed out at 30 to 40 pitchers, with closers being held to a tighter leash. Now it’s true that the pitch counts in the World Baseball Classic will be smaller, but teams will be able to balance off that problem by carrying larger numbers of pitchers on the active roster. And it’s unlikely that we’ll see an All-Star Game approach, with pitching changes annoyingly made every inning. The number of games in the tournament simply won’t allow that.
With so many American-born players either questionable for the Classic, or dropping out altogether, the U.S. team won’t be the powerhouse that some envision. Given the depth of American talent currently playing in the major leagues, there will be no shortage of quality players on the U.S. team. As an example, consider the situation at third base, where arguably the game’s best player, Alex Rodriguez, continues to vacillate on whether he will play. Even without A-Rod, the U.S. is stacked with several quality third basemen: Oakland’s Eric Chavez, Houston’s Morgan Ensberg, and the Mets’ David Wright. All have been All-Star players, with Chavez firmly established as the game’s best defensive third baseman and Wright seemingly destined for stardom in the nation’s largest market. They may not have A-Rod’s marquee value–at least not yet–but it’s not like these are middling third basemen, scraped from the barrel of mediocrity. A poll of today’s scouts would have Chavez and Wright ranked among the game’s top five third basemen, with Ensberg ranked somewhere in the upper 10 to 12.
The Classic will have trouble garnering media coverage because it is being played at the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament. To this criticism I ask, "What’s the alternative?" If the games were played during the summer, baseball’s regular season would have to be shut down for several weeks, causing games to be missed and interrupting the ebb and flow of the various pennant races. Major league teams already have a three-day break supplied by the All-Star Game; they simply don’t need another mid-season vacation, one that would last several weeks, at a time when the major leagues should be capitalizing on the fact that the three other major team sports–the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL–are all out of season. Another possibility that has been suggested would have the World Baseball Classic played in November, just after the World Series. Well, there are more problems with that. Coming on the heels of the World Series, the Classic would be considered a letdown, with the final results paling in comparison with those of major league baseball’s postseason. Then there’s also the problem of player fatigue. By November, most players are exhausted, ready to take some relaxing time off at the start of the winter. They’re simply not apt to be in prime condition–either mentally or physically–for another rigorous series of competitive games.
Furthermore, the conflict with the NCAA tournament in the spring may not be as large an obstacle as foreseen. Other than the championship game, which takes place on a Monday night, all of the NCAA basketball games take place from Thursday through Sunday. That leaves three full days each week–Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday–for the Classic to grab its share of newspaper and SportsCenter headlines. The Classic can take advantage of the weekly lull by scheduling some of the premier matchups during those open pockets of days off.
Once again, baseball is facing criticism for daring to do something different, just as it did with three-division formats and wild cards. Why do I get the feeling that if the NFL were to try something like this, the national media would be eating it up like candy? Yet, for some reason, baseball is held to a different standard, a standard that simply won’t allow the acceptance of anything that is new and different.
Why not let this thing develop and unfold, allowing the best baseball-playing countries in the world to show off their national pride in what could very well be a spirited international tournament? Before we condemn it for all sorts of questionable reasons, just give this thing a chance.