MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – There will be empty seats here at Dolphin Stadium this week, lots of them, and the World Baseball Classic's detractors will use the sea of empty plastic to bolster their argument against the tournament's merits.
And, well, it's a pretty good point. To hold the second round in a pair of cities not necessarily renowned for their ability to pack stadiums – Miami and San Diego – was a decision more related to weather than deservedness. And the WBC, still in its infancy, is not yet a large enough spectacle to cull reams of fans from around the country.
So coming off a splendid first round, the initial game of the 2009 WBC played in the United States on Saturday – Venezuela vs. the Netherlands – expects to draw 20,000 people, if that. For the night game, featuring Team USA, mezzanine-level tickets down the right-field line are available, which portends a crowd of 30,000 or so. Even better tickets are available in San Diego, a grim thought in an economy where discretionary income is so thin. Organizers hope the walk-up attendance will thrive, as it did during the 2006 WBC.
If it can exceed it … well, then it would be a lot like the rest of the '09 WBC thus far, outshining the original first round in almost every way.
Even excluding the pair of victories by the Netherlands over the Dominican Republic, the first round offered a number of stunning wins.
Italy ousted Canada, which was playing a home game at Rogers Centre. China, a baseball neophyte, downed Taiwan. Australia dropped 17 runs on a Mexico team that eventually advanced. Even Venezuela's 5-3 victory against the United States registered as something of a shock.
Only Canada's 8-6 win against Team USA in the first WBC would compare to any of those.
As defined by the number of close games and blowouts, the tournaments are nearly the same.
In the original WBC, six first-round games were decided by two or fewer runs. This year, it was seven.
Ten games in the '06 tournament saw wins by eight or more runs – the same number as this year.
Major League Baseball's public-relations arm sent out a press release Friday lauding the TV ratings for the first round, and they were impressive: The games on ESPN averaged 1.75 million viewers, up close to 90 percent from the first-round games in '06, according to MLB.
More than 2.6 million people tuned in to see the first game between the United States and Venezuela – small potatoes compared to the 45 million people in Japan who watched its first game against Korea.
Not released were the numbers in the countries MLB is trying to grow the sport – China, the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa – because, in all likelihood, they didn't get enough viewers to register in the ratings system.
• Japan was incredible. Nearly 28,000 more people showed up for the opener against China, and even the three games that didn't include Japan drew an average of 8,000-plus more fans than the previous WBC.
• Puerto Rico was pretty good, up 16 percent. Its home team's three games sold out and it drew larger crowds for the games that didn't involve Puerto Rico.
• With the worst bracket, Mexico City managed to draw 92,715 people – 1,510 more than the Phoenix pool did in '06. Considering Team USA played in Phoenix, that's quite a testament to the Mexican fans.
• Toronto packed 42,314 into the Rogers Centre for its opener against the United States, a 6-5 Canada loss that nonetheless thrilled to the last at-bat.
• The thrill obviously didn't translate. None of the other five games in Canada – including the home team's loss to Italy – drew anything more than a lukewarm crowd. The games barely cracked one-quarter capacity, and the tournament's big boost in attendance actually belies the fact that the big stadiums used still sat mostly empty when home teams weren't involved.
• Ticket prices remain too high. MLB sets the cost trying to sell the most tickets for the highest price, and it misread the market. The games – especially the first-round ones, at smaller sites – should sell out. Remember, if the goal is to widen the sport's appeal – and that claim is somewhat dubious, as money is always the imperative – then find a way to involve local children who might gravitate to other sports.
By advantage, in this case we mean the less calamitous tournament. A number of Venezuelan players cast aspersion on the original WBC because of subpar housing and meals.
Well, this year they've seen manager Luis Sojo excoriated by the Venezuelan media, protestors boo outfielder Magglio Ordonez for his loyalty to President Hugo Chavez and an incident Saturday that cemented '09 as the crazier year by a long shot.
Venezuela's team bus caught on fire. A pretty decent-sized one, too, according to a witness. No one was on board, and the players' belongings had been emptied off the bus, but still. At least in 2006 their bus didn't blow up.