Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips is proud to wear the red, white and blue. (AP Photo)
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The idea of the World Baseball Classic is so much greater than the actuality of the World Baseball Classic. It should be a tournament to which the game's best players crave an invitation, like the World Cup. It is a tournament to which far too many of the game's best players cringe at an invitation, like the NIT.
The criticisms of the WBC are sound. The timing, at the beginning of spring training, is awful. It creates a faux version of baseball in which starting pitchers can throw only a certain amount of pitches. The media distribution – every game is on MLB Network – is paltry and invites the question of whether the tournament is there to grow baseball internationally or ratings domestically. And more than anything is the tepid response in the United States, something officials believe would disappear were Team USA not to bomb out like it did in the first two WBCs.
Amid such sobering truths, the U.S. squad met here Monday for the first time, wearing red jerseys and blue caps, each trimmed in white, looking very much the part of all-American boys. Their stories sounded similar, bathed in patriotism, and not disingenuously, either. Inside baseball, the sport still considers itself America's pastime, and as such it continues to foster a sense of connection with the country, even if it's not near what it used to be.
While the games don't have meaning in a universal sense – the WBC, after all, is a wholly contrived event that has no bearing on any standings – they barrel toward a conclusion in which a team wins, and there is something wildly appealing about baseball that crowns a team something, anything, even in March.
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Few things in baseball are as polarizing as the WBC. Patriotism and responsibility and sacrifice get tossed around and explode like loaded-word bombs, turning a baseball tournament into a moral Geiger counter. Ultimately, really, it comes down to this: Just how much is a player willing to commit to an event that should and could be great but, because of its inherent weaknesses, almost certainly never will be?
The difference between yes and no isn't nearly as big as you may think.
Along the first-base line, players started to gather. First it was two, then four, half a dozen, double digits, each gawking, transfixed, slack-jawed. R.A. Dickey was throwing his knuckleball, and his Team USA teammates, a few of whom had flailed at it in the batter's box, watched with wonderment still. It is that sort of a pitch, one that gives hard-to-impress ballplayers a temporary bout of hyperattentiveness. And the funny thing is, the last time Dickey was wearing this jersey, he hardly ever threw it.
Dickey is the only former U.S. Olympian participating in the WBC. He beat Italy and the Netherlands at the Atlanta Games in 1996 as a 21-year-old with a big fastball. Almost 17 years later, with a Cy Young award in his pocket and perhaps the greatest mastery of a pitch believed to be untamable, he is back for one reason.
"It's a real chance at redemption for me," Dickey said. "We came up painfully short in '96. You don't often get a chance in a situation of this magnitude to do that."
Dickey sees the WBC as an Olympic equivalent, even if its scope is infinitesimal comparatively. He said he "made myself blatantly available" to manager Joe Torre, still saddened by the 11-2 beating Japan laid on the U.S. in the semifinals of the '96 Olympics, still wishing for a gold medal instead of a bronze.
And yet for all of his pragmatic points – Dickey would be throwing 65 pitches in his next start for the Blue Jays, as he will Friday, when he takes the mound in Team USA's debut against Mexico – not only does he understand the root of the debate, he can empathize with those whose emotional tugs weren't strong enough to yank them off their practical sentiment.
"I would commend them," Dickey said. "If you don't want to be here, even 1 percent of you, then you shouldn't be here. I don't fault anybody for that."
Justin Verlander wanted to be here. He just couldn't.
"Not a year when I came off of 270 innings and pitched in the World Series," he said.
He said he'd try anyway. So he got to spring training early.
"Once I started throwing, I realized quickly I wasn't nearly prepared enough," he said. "I was behind, but I didn't want to rush to catch up."
Verlander is 30. He is the game's best pitcher and its greatest workhorse. He also is going to make $200 million-plus on his next contract if he stays healthy. It's not the pitch count at the WBC that scares him. It is the pitches themselves: maximum-effort, studded-with-importance, far-heavier-than-spring-training pitches. The kind a pitcher throws in the postseason. And doing that now, after an offseason that consists mostly of rest, is like taking a sports car out of a garage for the first time in months, turning the engine and peeling down the freeway at 100 mph.
"What are you sacrificing? Risk of injury?" Verlander said. "No way. It's tough for pitchers. Particularly pitchers."
He shrugged. For a tournament ostensibly about bringing together the best players and allowing them to compete for worldwide supremacy, a Team USA without Justin Verlander is like watching Argentina without Lionel Messi. Or maybe Clayton Kershaw is Messi. Or David Price. CC Sabathia. Jered Weaver. Matt Cain. And on and on and on.
Here's the thing about the WBC: It can grow baseball around the world. One of Team USA's coaches, the great Dale Murphy, goes to clinics in Italy and Brazil and sees talent, real talent, in the heart of soccer countries. He raved about Brazilian Luiz Gohara, a left-handed teenager signed by Seattle last year for nearly $900,000. He is huge and throws hard and already has earned a nickname: CC, as in Sabathia.
While these emerging markets are supposedly the impetus behind the WBC – the likelier reason is the goo-gobs of money the tournament should make – the organizers can't lose sight of the truth: Unless a fundamental change occurs and the tournament engages the U.S. audience, it always will be regarded as a Seligian sideshow waiting to get steamrolled by the NCAA tournament.
Because it has focused so much on the international aspect, Major League Baseball has let that narrative run out of control. It could, frankly, use a little jingoism to pull in the domestic fan. And, better yet, cultivate others. Baseball has that power. Just listen to the team's second baseman.
"It was the best thing to ever happen," he said.
He's talking about 1996. Atlanta. The Olympics. Team USA. A bat boy named Brandon Phillips.
"I wasn't really taking baseball that serious at that age," said Phillips, now a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner for Cincinnati. "I was all about football and basketball. And for me to have that opportunity to do that, it made me want to concentrate on baseball a little more, because it gave me a goal to really do. To say if I ever make it, I want to play for the USA team."
He never thought he'd have that chance, not after he ascended to the major leagues and the Olympics got rid of baseball. The combination of country and sport drew him away from the sports with far more magnetism to youth today. And he's certain it can with others, too, whether it's here or around the world.
It is not just the United States that struggles with its best playing. Yu Darvish declined to pitch for two-time defending champion Japan. Shin-Soo Choo, the best player ever from Korea, turned down an invite. Felix Hernandez used his new contract as a reason to skip it for Venezuela. Jurickson Profar, barely 20, said no thanks to the Dutch team.
And arguably the most popular player from outside the U.S., the Dominican Republic's David Ortiz, revered back in his country and twice before a WBC participant, couldn't get past the tournament's drawbacks a third time.
"Playing important games when you have to produce coming out of vacation? I'm David Ortiz, but that doesn't mean I'm going to hit the damn baseball," he said. "There's timing. There's preparation. At the beginning of the real season, a lot of us struggle because our timing isn't there.
"You're talking about the top-performing players in baseball. And not one of us could perform at our highest levels. They want a lot from me, and I understand. I'm just not ready to give a lot."
He loves the Dominican Republic, he made sure to say. He loves baseball. There's a beautiful symbiosis between sport and country that even baseball, a game rarely partitioned by border, can exemplify. The D.R., where baseball is not just the national pastime but a huge part of the economy, should live for a tournament like this. Only it's not just Ortiz skipping out. It's Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre and Starlin Castro and Johnny Cueto and Rafael Soriano.
"I don't think this is the right time," Ortiz said. "But there's not that time that works."
No matter how beautiful the WBC is, each time it looks in the mirror, this ugly reflection stares at it.
Major league players in particular do not want to spend their entire offseason staying in game shape for a tournament before the season, a sensible point of view considering the millions of dollars teams lavish on them to remain elite.
"The only other option," Verlander said, "is the All-Star break. And I don't think teams want their guys going out then. I don't think they'd appreciate me throwing another 120 pitches in the middle of the season."
Well, there is after the World Series, which has been discussed and turned down. So Big Papi, Justin Verlander and dozens of others who should be the marquee attractions for a tournament that should be a sporting jewel spend their springs in Fort Myers and Lakeland and other outposts slogging through another boring game and getting ready for another grind of a season. And baseball, married to this flawed time, tries to convince itself that "for better" will outweigh "for worse."
Andy Pettitte called Joe Torre asking to play for Team USA this year. Among the New York Yankees' reticence to let players participate, considering Pettite's age (40) and his injury-pocked 2012, they eventually agreed: Probably not a great idea.
As the manager for Team USA and a high-level executive with MLB, Torre should, in theory, be the advocate of all advocates for participation. As a reasonable person, he can't look past what the WBC has going against it.
"There are a lot of issues that are legitimate issues why players don't play or teams don't want their players to play," he said. "And the time of year has a lot to do with it. Let's admit it: These guys are going back, and they're going to play 162 for their teams.
"I've talked to a number of players who have respectfully declined for one reason or another," he added. "And to me, having been around the game for a long time, I understand. It's not like, 'I don't want to do this.' Their body's not ready to do this."
Just as the players have reasons not to show, the motivation for Torre isn't abundantly apparent. He's 72, out of the managing game for two seasons, enjoying his job as a voice of reason and providing institutional knowledge in the commissioner's office. He's here, though, and dispensing nuggets of nationalistic superiority like "When you wear the USA across your chest, all of a sudden it takes baseball to another level," and "You put on your Sunday best to beat the USA."
He's here, in part, because he's a true believer in the idea of baseball as something more than a sport. With every word Torre spoke Monday, he ran the risk of invoking a gagtastic amount of good-ol' 'Merican pride. He brought up Sept. 11, a flashpoint for the politicization of anything. Because he is Joe Torre, of course, he did it with a deft enough touch that it seemed neither cloying nor desperate. His belief in the power of baseball, whether it's real or not, is, at very least, earnest.
"It's more than a sport," Torre said. "It's a place for people to go. And of course when you have USA on your chest, it's a responsibility. You represent yourself, yes, but you represent your country, and we know how proud that makes you."
It makes him and R.A. Dickey and Brandon Phillips, who will wear it on their chests, proud, just as wearing their countries' jerseys would have done the same for Justin Verlander and David Ortiz. It makes them no less a patriot, no less responsible, no less willing to sacrifice. It makes them casualties of a tournament that could be so great if actuality could just get out of the way.
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