WBC apathy is an American affliction
For nearly an hour during their news conference two weeks ago to promote the World Baseball Classic, the tournament’s organizers blathered on about rule changes and mandatory reporting dates and scheduling specifics. Left unsaid was the shocking disclosure that the active ingredient in Ambien is a WBC news conference.
Salesmanship isn’t the WBC honchos’ strong suit, though that had revealed itself without a dais and microphone. Just look at the players who already have declared themselves unwilling to join Team USA at the second incarnation of the tournament in March.
Josh Hamilton? No. Ryan Howard? Sorry. Alex Rodriguez? Nope, he defected to the Dominican team. CC Sabathia, Brandon Webb, Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Brad Lidge? Nein, non, lo, nyet, nei and na. Respectively.
And the exodus won’t end there. Before the Jan. 19 preliminary roster deadline, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy and Ben Sheets are expected to turn down invitations, too, in spite of the personal pleas of manager Davey Johnson. Others will follow. Which leaves the American team in the same place as the original group that couldn’t even advance to the semifinals: woefully undermanned and destined to underachieve.
Why other countries seem to have no trouble procuring their best and brightest while the United States deigns to chumming for pitchers gnaws at WBC organizers, who dream of the event maturing into baseball’s version of the World Cup. Grand though those delusions may be, the initial tournament succeeded, an opening game between the Dominican and Venezuela providing the bell-ringing, song-chanting, flag-waving and -wearing atmosphere never seen at a baseball game outside of Latin America.
Team USA delivered the tournament’s nadir with bungling performances befit of its roster. On whom the blame was laid – the players, accused of selfishness for not joining the cause, or USA Baseball, the group tasked with convincing them that playing in the WBC is noble and enjoyable – doesn’t matter so much now. The reality is that it wasn’t a one-time spurning.
The first WBC didn’t convince players from the United States that it was a must-participate event. Bowing out in the second round certainly had something to do with that. So did the empty seats in stadiums for Team USA’s games. And the fear – among pitchers especially – that disrupting their standard schedule leading up to opening day is a road flecked with injury mines.
Civic pride for the American players doesn’t exist like in Japan and Cuba and the Dominican, where baseball is a matter of great national import and where a jersey with your country’s name is a gilded shroud. Participation is a must.
Here, it’s a sorta, mighta, maybe. Yes, Team USA already has some solid commitments. Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones return from the first go-around, and Dustin Pedroia, Grady Sizemore, Brian McCann and Ryan Braun are in. The only pitcher thus far is John Lackey, and that, really, illustrates the difference between what Team USA can be and will be.
Imagine a rotation of Sabathia, Halladay, Lincecum and Webb. Fine, replace one of them with Hamels. OK, switch out another for Peavy. Whatever the permutation, it would be the best in the WBC, even with the pitch limits.
Only Team USA is likely 0 for 6 with the six best pitchers. So fingers are crossed that Cliff Lee says yes after his Cy Young season. And that MLB teams don’t reel in Jon Lester or John Danks or Chad Billingsley or Matt Cain because of their young arms. Or that Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren don’t look at what happened to Team USA’s 2006 WBC starters – Peavy’s ERA that year spiked, Dontrelle Willis’ career has never recovered and Roger Clemens was in front of Congress two years later – and run away frightened.
Johnson managed a group of American minor leaguers to the bronze medal at this year’s Olympics, and he’s approaching the WBC with the same no-excuses tack. The United States should win the WBC. Of the 1,188 players who played in a major league game last season, 864 were born in the United States. That’s nearly 73 percent. To have an almost three-quarters monopoly on talent in the best league in the world and not cruise to victory is embarrassing.
Perhaps it won’t matter, and Team USA’s offense will mash with such ferocity and its bullpen will pitch so well that it might negate the paucity of starting pitching. Hopefully so, in fact, because the WBC is a tournament worth nurturing, and Team USA’s success is vital to its health.
When Jan. 19 rolls around and the question emerges of what could’ve and should’ve been, officials will slough it off and try instead to focus on the players that comprise the roster. It’s a neat sleight of hand, exactly the sort that Mark Teixeira tried the first time around in the WBC when, following a loss to Korea, he said, “We can’t worry about who didn’t play and who could’ve been here.”
That sentiment, apparently, hasn’t waned. Teixeira, a free agent who can’t afford to miss his first spring training with a new team, likely will pull himself from consideration. Just another name on a long list that has the WBC wishing it really had swallowed a sleeping pill and this was all one bad dream.