SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – There comes an age at which everything is fair game, no matter how inappropriate, and apparently for Felipe Alou, it is 73 years old. Because the day before the Dominican Republic team he manages kicked off the 2009 World Baseball Classic in the Western Hemisphere, Alou wasn't just biting the hand that feeds him. He gnawed on the poor thing like a buzzard.
"This, for me, is the decisive year of the Classic," Alou said, and though perhaps his introductory press conference at Hiram Bithorn Stadium wasn't quite the place to lose his inner monologue, the thesis was spot on.
The WBC, at its simplest, is a contrivance: a made-up tournament to drum up revenue and expand baseball's international reach – in that order. It's a damn fine one, too, if Major League Baseball and the rest of the organizers can grow it into the sport's version of the World Cup. And there's the rub: With the economy in the tank and so many businesses going local, local, local, pouring resources into the WBC is a decided risk for MLB. It's banking on a long-term investment at a time when everyone else is going short.
Differentiating between profitability and enjoyability – or rather melding them – will prove the most difficult part of the WBC's maturing process. Currently, the WBC makes plenty of money. Participating teams will split $14 million in prize money, and MLB said it will give $15 million of WBC revenue to worldwide baseball federations. Barring a disastrous tournament this year or a complete economic meltdown, the 2013 WBC will take place, and probably in a format larger than the current 16-team bracket.
The bigger issue is: Just how popular is the WBC, and would that popularity alone sustain it without the television teats of ESPN and the MLB Network?
Well, that depends.
In Japan, absolutely. Nearly 30 percent of TV-watching households in the country tuned Thursday in to watch Japan and China play the first game of the '09 WBC.
In China, a couple of farmers watched. Maybe. If their remotes broke when they were channel surfing.
And the dichotomy exists among the rest of the WBC teams: Cuba, the Dominican, Puerto Rico and Venezuela revere their teams. Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa and Taiwan would sooner think the tournament's acronym stood for Wizened Baboon Cranium.
Which leaves the United States. Baseball is such a parochial sport, the idea of rooting for a country seems, well, foreign. It doesn't help that Team USA isn't so much a Dream Team as it is a – OK, it's not a nightmare, exactly, but REM sleep it ain't.
Take the Americans' starting pitching. To be fair, we'll use the most neutral metric available: adjusted earned-run average, which takes into account park effects and the pitcher's league. Exactly 100 starters threw 150 or more innings last year. Team USA's best pitcher, Jake Peavy, had the 15th-best adjusted ERA. Jeremy Guthrie was 25th, Roy Oswalt 31st and Ted Lilly 51st.
It gets worse. Among those 100 pitchers, 78 were born in the United States. And 10 American pitchers – Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Chad Billingsley, Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb and John Danks – were better than Peavy.
Why should the public buy into the WBC when elite players and teams so obviously don't?
"Until there is control of the players, I believe that the Classic will always be at risk," Alou said. "Because they announce great players and great players, and then little by little those great players, with all their rights, can leave the Classic.
"And in addition to that, tickets are sold with the names of those players … and when the Classic starts, half those players don't participate in the Classic."
Losing Alex Rodriguez off the Dominican team, Alou admitted, was one thing. He might need hip surgery. Albert Pujols, on the other hand, wasn't permitted to play because of an insurance policy on his contract with St. Louis. And Seattle's rookie general manager, Jack Zduriencik, put the kibosh on Adrian Beltre's WBC plans out of fear he'd lose a trade chip. The three of them appeared in an advertisement peddling WBC tickets.
Alou watches pitcher Ervin Santana toil away at Angels camp – another casualty of the Angels' anti-WBC stance, along with Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey and Mike Napoli – and sees Francisco Liriano at Twins spring training and imagines what it would be like to have a rotation worthy of his lineup.
If the WBC really is a long play by MLB, it must join the players' union in convincing players and owners that the collateral damage of injuries, however magnified it seems, is necessary to build this into a baseball staple just as the World Cup is to soccer.
"Every qualified player should play for their own country," said Pedro Martinez, who may be using the WBC as his last hurrah. Same goes for Bernie Williams, Moises Alou and Pudge Rodriguez. They're doing so because they believe their countries and the WBC deserve the biggest names.
The Tokyo Dome will pulse for Japan's games. Hiram Bithorn Stadium will go bananas March 9 and 11 when Puerto Rico should play the Dominican. The atmosphere at these games – so passionate, so spirited, so pure – is the sort rarely seen in baseball.
And then there are the semifinal and final rounds in the United States. One baseball official cringed at the thought of "a final with two teams no one in Los Angeles cares about and a half-empty Dodger Stadium." The enduring image wouldn't be of big home runs and huge strikeouts so much as an upper deck full of empty green and blue seats.
The fear is real. Already the WBC must overcome its odd timing, its pitch counts, its concerns about injuries, its absurd IBAF rules and the stigma that it is nothing more than a cash grab and can't develop into more. All of these issues were shoved to the background during the first tournament, because it so exceeded expectations.
Honeymoons last only so long. It's time for the WBC to prove its viability. Felipe Alou didn't mean to be harsh Friday. He was simply telling the truth.