I miss the World Baseball Classic.
On this day last year, I stepped out of my car at 10 a.m. and into a circus. Outside of Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, thousands of people waved the flags of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, chanted songs for their countries and plain-old caterwauled until their voices hoarsened – three hours before the first pitch. This was for a baseball game, and it was unlike anything I'd ever seen.
Today, on the same field where the WBC made its unforgettable North American debut, the Atlanta Braves will work out. They will play catch. They will take batting practice. The Toenail Clipping Channel would be about as interesting.
So, fine, accuse me of buying into the excessive hype from Major League Baseball – sliced bread has nothing on the WBC! – but the entire event, from that first game in Orlando to the finals between Japan and Cuba, made last spring into more than pitchers working out kinks with five-run innings and hitters shaving off the residue of too many 12-ounce laments during fruitless hunting and fishing trips.
Even if the purpose of the WBC was specious and manufactured – to crown a true world champion in spite of pitch counts, bad umpiring and teams, such as South Africa's, made of people who sell insurance and recycle printer cartridges – the players bought into it like it meant something. That made for great drama.
Just look at that first game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, a rollicking mess of fun supercharged by the atmosphere. Bartolo Colon and Johan Santana, the two best starters in the American League a year earlier, dueled for the first three innings. David Ortiz posed and preened after both of his home runs. Fans provided the soundtrack with the same tunes and intonations from outside, only louder and more pronounced.
To ensure the inaugural tournament started well, the WBC pitted perhaps the two most talented teams against one another, like kicking off the World Cup with Brazil vs. France. Soccer would never dare give away such a marquis game. Baseball needed to.
The WBC did have its flaws. Much as "baseball shape" may be an oxymoron, few were in it. Holding the tournament before pitchers had a chance to stretch their arms made some early-round games look like spring training in patriotic uniforms.
Yet interest would not wane. Umpire Bob Davidson's blown call on a sacrifice fly, still a disgrace, made Team USA's victory against Japan that much more memorable. The Americans then gagged away that chance and couldn't even make the finals of a tournament ready-made for them to win.
That the WBC survived after the United States' exit was as large an endorsement as any. There was Korea, errorless in seven games and boasting a five-Lee lineup (Bum Ho, Byung Kyu, Jin Young, Jong Beom and Seung Yeop, who hit a WBC-best five home runs). There was Cuba, with old warrior Pedro Luis Lazo throwing 97-mph gas and young star Yulieski Gourriel, who everyone hoped would defect so we could see him in the big leagues. There was the Dominican Republic, its lineup including Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Jose Reyes and Alfonso Soriano – with Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez withdrawing right before the tournament. And there was Japan, Ichiro brilliant as ever, overshadowed only by a right-hander pitching for the first time in America.
His name? Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Those four teams made it to San Diego for the semifinals. Japan and Korea took the energy from the Venezuela-Dominican game and applied it to a stadium more than five times bigger. In Cuba and the Dominican, work stopped for the WBC.
And by the time Japan beat Cuba in the finals, the season-ending injury to Washington reliever Luis Ayala didn't matter, and neither did any of Davidson's bad calls, nor did the fatigue some of the WBC participants would later blame for bad seasons.
The WBC was that good.
So good, in fact, that while it will almost certainly never reach the popularity of the World Cup, it can become one of sports' premier events. Already Japan is clamoring to host games beyond the first round in the next go-around, 2009. Every city in California, Florida, Arizona and with a domed stadium will bid for those games. Baseball wants to expand beyond the 16 countries represented last year, though growth would dilute the product. But to spread baseball around the world, it might be necessary. MLB envisions the day when players from Italy and Israel, China and Cuba, Spain and, yes, South Africa are on big-league rosters.
The WBC, remember, was dreamt up as a revenue catalyst as much as a grand competition. Skepticism reigned as such. Players dropped out because the full tournament, plus training, takes more than half of March. And it is the problem of timing, more than anything, that could hinder the WBC in the future.
Should MLB move it to the All-Star break? Or after the season? Will March simply have to do?
Running the early rounds from March 15-25, then saving the semifinals and finals for an expanded All-Star weekend, seems a good solution. Players will have a month of spring training to ready themselves, so pitch counts won't be necessary. They can rejoin their teams with nearly a week to go in spring training should jobs be on the line. And the anticipation for the rest of the tournament will build throughout the first half, leading into a perfect complement for the staid Midsummer Classic.
Baseball soon must answer the pressing question of when, and the answer had better be satisfactory. It built a wonderful franchise with the WBC, and to see it mangled like the DirecTV-Extra Innings deal would be crushing. Here's to MLB learning over the next two years the fine art of not getting in the way of a good thing.
I miss the World Baseball Classic.
And I'd like it to stay that way.