Every four years, the World yawns and endures the Baseball Classic: a made-for-TV “event” that supposedly showcases the best players from each nation battling for… something. Sold as the equivalent of international soccer’s World Cup, the World Baseball Classic brings together the handful of nations with a thriving baseball culture (the United States, Japan, Cuba, Venezuela) and the even fewer attempting to get in on the fun despite a lack of baseball as a national pastime (Italy, Pakistan, New Zealand, South Africa) in the middle of MLB’s spring training for a “competitive tournament” in which nothing of import will happen.
Baseball stole this idea for an international tournament from FIFA, which has used it to become the richest (and most corrupt) sporting organization on the planet. Officially, FIFA generated more than $4B (billion, with a B) in revenue around the 2014 World Cup. Fans from around the globe re-arranged their sleep schedules and went to bizarre lengths to catch their favorite national team play in the tournament. The WBC is hardly a showcase for the best of baseball – it is an interesting exhibition designed to sell baseball in markets that have shown little interest in the game. There is a Chinese team in this year’s tournament, and they have one minor league player on their roster – that should make for a competitive game against the Dominican Republic.
Money is the reason this exhibition masquerading as a competitive tournament exists. Baseball has even scheduled it so that the best teams aren’t in mid-season form, and thus provide the minnows a bit more of a chance than they would if they had to face relief ace Andrew Miller in peak condition. But instead of the World Baseball Exhibition, we get more of the “this time it counts!” marketing drivel that MLB seems to specialize in. Strike one.
Soccer has, for generations, held its national tournament in the offseason of its various member organizations: For example, clubs in England play a season from August to May, with several “international breaks” of one-two weeks, and then international tournaments are played in June and July. The international competitions have risen alongside the club season, and are a set part of the schedule: the international calendar.
However, baseball has chosen to stage the World Baseball Classic in the midst of North American spring training – the time on the calendar in which players are preparing for the upcoming season and “getting in game shape” – not during their competitive season or just after the season’s conclusion. Thus, strike two: The quality of play in the WBC is necessarily sloppy and/or disjointed as hitters are still working on timing and pitchers on stretching themselves out. “Classic” is a misnomer: The games are exhibitions, not tense battles for national supremacy. If anything, the WBC mimics the intensity and import of a friendly played in November – certainly not the passion and competitiveness of a World Cup match.
Part of MLB’s efforts to market the WBC has included the idea that being a “national team player” carries some recognition and reputation boost, as it does for international soccer players. However, that belief is at best misguided. The vast majority of major league players come from three or four of the WBC’s participants; there are currently no major leaguers from four of the participant national teams’ homeland; dual-nationals (read: Americans with an ancestral or other connection to a country) are rampant. This is an MLB sponsored tournament, so if you’ve got Italian heritage in any way, you can suit up for Team Italy.
Further, the reward of being labeled an “international player” is far exceeded by the risk of injury. Players are routinely prohibited from participating if they have a “real life” injury that might affect their club. Oakland’s Sonny Gray wanted to participate, but cannot. As did St. Louis’s Alex Reyes, before his injury. The issue of injuries, and injury-prevention, has always been a big deal for the WBC – because it is a “competitive tournament” held in the middle of spring training.
Fans check the WBC rosters and either exhale in relief when their favorite players are not on the roster, or grimace in nervous anticipation of an injury. No Nationals fan is hoping Tanner Roark has a great WBC unless it also results in a great season for Washington. Certainly no Blue Jays fan is rooting for Marcus Stroman to do anything other than stay healthy for Team USA. Strike three for the WBC is that fans only root against injuries – and most have no real reason to support these national teams.
The WBC isn’t what it claims to be, and what it is is a waste of time. MLB executes their version of the FIFA cash grab every four years and makes noises about how important and competitive it is while scheduling it in a nonsensical manner that encourages fans to, at best, dread it. If it were about showcasing the best of baseball, it wouldn’t be conducted in March, during spring training. Fans hold their breath, hoping that a pulled muscle is not a harbinger of injuries to come as it was for the New York Mets David Wright in 2013. The WBC continues to be a sideshow for these reasons. Here’s hoping your favorite player makes it through healthy.