LOS ANGELES – Whether you like the WBC or haven't given it any thought at all, whether you view it as the intergalactic baseball championship or little more than puffed-up batting practice, any standing it does have in this country is a reflection of Derek Jeter.
He's going on 35 and is splitting time with Jimmy Rollins. Indeed, when team management decided late Thursday to start Roy Oswalt – and not Jake Peavy – against Japan on Sunday night, revealing it really, really wants to win this thing, then by rights it also must start Rollins – and not Jeter – at shortstop.
Those are insignificant details, however. What matters broadly is Jeter believed in this tournament in 2006, when Team USA was constructed poorly and played worse and, it turned out, needed his imperial baseball aura. Three years later, when U.S. baseball needed to clean up after ’06 and come out and play a capable game or two, Jeter was again out front, leading the effort, if not necessarily the outcome.
"The captain is the beacon and people follow the captain," U.S. coach and former shortstop Barry Larkin said. "That's what Derek Jeter does. There's a face of baseball, and Derek is that face."
Other players leave limping and complaining about inconsistent at-bats. Other players couldn't be bothered to begin with. It's not their faults, probably. The game has given them so much for so long, they've had to be talked onto the field so many times, they've completely forgotten they owe the game some, too. Their call.
"I think everyone is making such a big deal out of not playing enough games," Jeter said, and the guy making the most public deal of it is Chipper Jones. "Ideally, you would like to play every single day, but that's not the case here. …Most of the guys here know what it takes, understand what it takes to get ready for the season."
Yeah, nobody's here losing a job.
There will be a day when the WBC gets it right and becomes a great event, and on that day the game would be wise to remember Jeter put his mug and reputation to this thing when it could have failed.
Not only did he stand at shortstop, but he dressed up in the uniform and sat for the cameras. He sat for the marketers. He sat for the poster makers. He didn't have to.
In San Diego during the second round, Mexico manager Vinny Castilla routinely ducked post-game press conferences, and his players were just as dismissive. On Friday morning at Dodger Stadium, Japan's manager, the likable Tatsunori Hara, fielded a few questions, but was accompanied to the press conference by none of his players.
Jeter walked into the interview room laughing, smiling, willing, alongside third baseman David Wright. A half-hour earlier, not a single player from Japan could be put out. The event suffers.
"Once you had the opportunity to go out there and play and wear the uniform, represent your country and be around the guys, you realized what an honor it was," Jeter said. "That's the reason I'm here this time. It's not to get out of spring training for two or three weeks. It's to come out here and represent our country and win a championship here. … Guys obviously have their reasons for not being able to participate, but I think more players wanted to play than not."
Plenty didn't, however. The Cy Young and MVP ballots from last season are filled with players who wouldn't be dragged out of their offseasons until the very last flights to Arizona and Florida. Their call.
We can't know how WBC II will be viewed by the U.S. players or the owners who provide them or the insurance companies who indemnify them.
We can't know if WBC III, four years from now, might reflect injuries to the right side of the Boston Red Sox's infield, or to Wright's toe, or Matt Lindstrom's arm. We can't know the size of Bud Selig's fight to fill that roster, because not everybody's instinct is to raise his hand. Not everybody is Jeter.
The tournament will be judged in a few days over somebody's champagne party, and then six months from now by how able some of them are to play their season, and four years from now by how well anybody remembers the creaks and strains and complaints.
If Oswalt throws 95 pitches Sunday night, beats Japan and then has the kind of regular season Peavy or Dontrelle Willis had in 2007, then, well, there might not be another Oswalt in four years. It's easiest to lay the frailties of the man on the perceived burdens of the WBC. The alternative is full-blown accountability, which isn't really baseball's game.
It's why some players leave camp, or don't come at all, or can't be bothered with a few minutes in the interview room. Their call.
By WBC III, Jeter will be almost 39. He'll probably have his 3,000 hits by then, maybe have another championship or two. He might even be retired. He doesn't seem the type to hang around for the sake of hanging around, though better ballplayers than him have.
In comparison to the rest of his career, his participation here will be a footnote. But, we should remember he was among the first to make it important. He made it his responsibility. And he made it cool.
- Derek Jeter