Four years ago (and quick: tell me who won the 2009 World Baseball Classic), Selig was moved to declare, "I think this is tremendous. Long after I'm gone this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and you can count on that." Hard to know if he's right since he won't go away, but if you define "bigger" as "being flogged mercilessly by the poobahs of baseball", Selig may have a point.
The weekend brawl between Mexico and Canada (and we always thought our US neighbors were so peaceful) gave the whole enterprise a black eye, figuratively and literally. It happened because a Canadian batter bunted for a base hit with a 6-run lead in the 9th inning. That's a breach of baseball etiquette, except this isn't really baseball.
Apparently unbeknownst to some of the Mexican players, notably Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz, the World Baseball Classic uses run differential as a tiebreaker. Cruz strongly suggested that Mexico's pitcher throw at the next Canada hitter. He finally nailed Rene Tosni on the third try, and that's when the fight started.
You could blame Cruz, or pitcher Arnold Leon, or any of the players who duked it out. But how about blaming the Lords of Baseball, who created a format that looks like the game these guys play for a living but isn't exactly the same? To amplify: had Mexico been sitting on a 9th-inning lead, logic would have dictated Sergio Romo be on the mound. But WBC rules forbade that, because a pitcher can't pitch for three straight days in this tournament.
Of course, the MLB teams that lend their players to this enterprise do so unwillingly. Does anyone really think Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean are thrilled to see a third of their starting lineup, one of their starting pitchers and their closer exposed to full-bore baseball midway through training camp? God forbid one of these guys gets hurt, and of course, nobody can really guess how this will affect them come September or October.
Selig and his crowd think baseball needs boosting overseas. Really? The sport seems to be doing just fine in the places where it's taken hold. Japan, Korea and Taiwan have active pro leagues, and of course many Latin American countries have a deeply-embedded beisbol culture. Naturally, Major League Baseball benefits greatly from this: 28% of the players on Opening Day MLB rosters last year were foreign-born.
The reality is that the world serves as a giant farm system for the Big Dog, Major League Baseball. Any kid anywhere who wants to really make it big wants to play in The Show, and the WBC does nothing to enhance that.
At the end of the day, I'm left with the sneaking suspicion that the whole enterprise is yet another way to sell a few shirts and caps and tickets. No problem there, but please, let's not pretend otherwise. This whole charade in which ballplayers dig up their grandparents' birth certificates so they can play for, say, Italy just adds to the silliness.
I wouldn't miss the WBC if it just faded away. But Bud Selig is nothing if not relentless, so I doubt this thing is going anywhere. So, a few suggestions:
- Use minor-leaguers, amateurs and college players. If the real goal is to develop the sport, use up-and-coming talent.
- Set it up more like the World Cup in soccer, where countries qualify over a period of several years (the US is automatically "in", of course). Then play the 8-team "finals" over the course of a week or ten days in one city, like the College World Series.
- Do away with this "run differential" idiocy. That's not baseball.
- Require participants to actually be from the country they represent. Grandpa's not good enough.
With these changes, the biggest problem the WBC faces--its interruption of spring training--would vanish. It would become a nice little sideshow to the start of the Major League season.
And Canada and Mexico could still have a fight if they wanted to.