Right now I’m watching a taut, tense game between two baseball powers. Both rosters are filled with some of the best baseball players alive, which by extension makes them some of the best baseball players to ever live. There are guys throwing 95, but that might mean it’s an off day for them. There are dingers and stolen bases and defensive marvels, and it’s, well, I’ll just come out and say it, it’s baseball. And it’s really good.
So I feel guilty writing this. The premise is whiny, the headline is too self-assured, and it’s not like I’ve put 30-plus hours into the World Baseball Classic this year, so I haven’t earned the right to complain. I’ve watched a few games, and they’ve been quite fun. I like the tall guy.
But if I had to write a one-sentence review of the WBC, it would go like this:
The World Baseball Classic is fun, but it always feels like there’s just a little something missing.
I don’t think that’s unfair. The positives are obvious — talented baseball players playing talented baseball — and that’s enough to watch. That’s enough of an argument to keep it all going. It’s an irregular respite from the winter doldrums, it comes in baseball’s worst month, and it’s fun to see baseball’s superstars sorted into different permutations. Also, it’s baseball. And if you don’t think they really care, allow me to present Tony Peña, manager of the Dominican Republic:
I’m not even sure if that does it justice. He was mad about a strike call. Mad enough to inhale a USB cable and get it stuck in his neck. Yeah, they care, which makes it that much more fun.
There’s still something missing, though. Lucky for you, I’ve isolated these problems and have determined what can be done about them. Hopefully this helps
Problem: The best players don’t always play
Every team has a story. Johnny Cueto spent time with his ailing father, which cut into his spring training, which made it harder for him to get into game shape. There were complications with Russell Martin that I can’t begin to comprehend:
Russell Martin will not play for Team Canada in the WBC due to not being cleared for contract insurance.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) February 9, 2017
And Mike Trout is probably standing shirtless on a Washington D.C. street corner right now, yelling words of encouragement at nimbostratus clouds. Or maybe he just didn’t want to participate in the WBC, and now he’s regretting it a bit. It’s still fair to legitimately wonder if various teams would be better if they could chose from the players who aren’t participating. Before you dismiss that as hyperbole, note that Trout and Clayton Kershaw aren’t participating. Chris Sale. Madison Bumgarner. Mookie Betts. Bryce Harper. Kris Bryant. Now that would be a heckuva start to a team.
If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice that those are all players who declined to play for the United States. When you rank players who were born outside of the U.S. by their 2016 WAR, the top active hitter who declined to participate was Canada’s Joey Votto, who was 44th. After that was Jose Ramirez, who wouldn’t come close to cracking the Dominican Republic’s loaded lineup.
It’s this country that has the problem, then. Things just haven’t been the same since Zenith stopped making TVs here, man. When will we ever get a full-strength US team?
Nothing. There is absolutely no way to make players squeeze an extra month of hyper-competitive baseball in if they don’t want to. They know what’s best for their careers, their psyches, their bodies. They’re cogs in a billion-dollar industry that makes them millions of dollars, and the idea of interrupting their fine-tuned routine to play for national pride appeals to some more than others. That’s how it’s always going to be, and that’s fine.
That’s before you get to the owners and general managers, some of whom secretly wish the WBC would crawl under a rock and die.
Problem: There are a bunch of games that start in the dead of night
One of these years, I’m going to stay up. The opening game, Israel vs. Korea, was at 1:30 a.m. PT, which is way too late. I happened to be in Washington D.C., where it was at 4:30 a.m., which is way too early. One of these years, though, I’m going to stay up.
I wanted to watch the pomp, and I was hoping for a smattering of circumstance, but there’s just no way. And if you miss the opening, it’s a lot harder to get hooked for the the rest of the tournament. There have been important games played on the other side of the world at times that are absurdly inconvenient for this side of the world, and other important games played on this side of the world that are absurdly inconvenient for everyone else.
And good luck avoiding spoilers if you want to DVR a game or two. They crawl out of my phone and whisper into my ear.
Nothing. Yep, time zones exist. They suck. There’s nothing like being on the East Coast on a work trip, powering through a 2 p.m. hamburger coma, patiently waiting to not care about anything, and realizing that people are just getting started on the West Coast. When it’s 5, forget it, you’re already six martinis in, and it’s just so cute that there are people back home pretending that the rest of their day matters.
The world is round, and time zones are a thing. Pretending that they aren’t and starting a Japan/Cuba game at 3 a.m. local time to appease your dumb schedule doesn’t make sense. That means that when the WBC kicks off in Japan, it’s going to be at a time that’s convenient for one part of the world — a part that happens to be as interested in the WBC as anywhere else.
It’s the World Baseball Classic. There’s no fixing the start times without messing with that first word in the tournament.
Problem: The crowds might be lackluster or non-existent for certain matchups
During Monday’s Italy-Venezuela game, Gary Thorne remarked on how it was possible to hear Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel yelling from the dugout. The listed attendance was 1,783, which means there were probably fewer people than that.
It’s hard to get into any sporting event in a stadium that big and a crowd that small.
It turned out to be a fantastic game, with Venezuela coming back in the ninth inning, and Italy rallying furiously in the bottom half of the ninth, but it was played in front of a smattering of fans, and I’m pretty sure not all of them were of the painted-face or homemade-sign set. If you could get something like Japan has enjoyed throughout the WBC ...
... for every game, well, now you’re building the sport and making the games that much more exciting.
Nothing. There is absolutely no way to make a tournament where the advancing teams get to play in their home countries. Think of the logistics. It’s not like Jean-Paul World Baseball rolled over in bed one morning and declared there should be a rousing tournament in his honor. This has been in the works for years. There are passports to consider for everyone involved.
There isn’t an international tournament in the world where you’ll hear the words, “Well, I guess it’s off to Italy for us!” after the end of a game. If it were feasible, soccer would have figured out a money-making tournament by now. So you’ll cross your fingers and hope for the United States or Mexico to make it to Dodger Stadium this time around, and for Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba to make the finals the next time they’re in Miami. Or maybe have the finals in Japan next time, even if that would be a wee bit unfair to visiting teams.
But you’re not going to guarantee raucous home crowds, regardless of what you try.
Problem: The tournament format is cruel, short, and prone to sample-size shenanigans
Yeah, that’s baseball for you.
But even compared to the postseason, the chances of getting bounced after a couple of off games are high. Two hiccups from two different starting pitchers might ruin everything. A lineup hitting into bad luck might ruin everything. It’s the inherent unfairness of the Wild Card Game, just stretched out and weaponized.
It’s a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong. But I’m pretty sure Korea just showed up to a ballpark in uniform, ready to get the real WBC started. That’s a drag for a lot of teams in the tournament.
Nothing. Either fewer participants (nope) or more games (nope). Embrace the chaos and ride it downstream while eating the paddle. It’s the only option.
Problem: March is too early, and players aren’t ready
Jose Quintana was throwing a no-hitter last week, and there wasn’t a lot of drama because there was no way he was going to complete a no-hitter under the 65-pitch limit. The pitch count is there because million-dollar players playing for billion-dollar teams don’t want to get hurt in a fun, well-meaning exhibition, and rightfully so.
A bulk of the participants of the WBC would usually be somewhere else right now, getting a handful of low-pressure at-bats or innings, working on different things and fine-tuning their mechanics. It’s only logical that they wouldn’t want to play as if it were the end of October, and it’s supremely logical that they wouldn’t want to.
Nothing. Forget about November, when players are gassed and rest is a necessity for everyone who isn’t 22 or an eager minor-league free agent. December might work — it’s when the Caribbean World Series happens, and that’s a lot of fun — but it’s not better than March.
And you need to really, really, really forget about the idea of Major League Baseball shutting down for a couple weeks during the season. That would be a great way to set money on fire, and you could almost justify it if there were evidence that, say, Italy, was going bonkers for baseball, solely because of the tournament. Building the sport internationally is a reward worth sacrificing for. But not millions of dollars in expected revenue-sacrificing.
Billy Beane: [burning old Compaq computers to stay warm]
Rob Manfred: We’re gonna need to shut you down for three weeks in the middle of summer, when the kids are out of school and your attendance usually peaks.
Japan will do it for the Olympics when they’re in Tokyo in 2020, but that’s an outlier. Expecting 30 owners to agree on a loss of revenues seems farfetched, and that’s being polite.
What have we learned? That the WBC is kind of awesome. Look at this danged home run:
I love Thorne’s sultry call on that one. It was a serious champagne-by-the-fireplace home run, and we are blessed to have seen it. The WBC is fun, and you should watch it.
But if you’re having the feeling that it’s a little different, that it’s missing something that keeps it from being as exciting as your average postseason series, you’re not alone. Just know that there’s not a whole lot that can be done.
Not unless someone invents supersonic jets that get people around the world in an hour. That would fix just about every complaint up there. If you’re reading this, and you are smart enough to invent something like that, you should do it. Not just for the WBC, but because it would make you a multi-billionaire. Think it over.
Until then, the WBC is flawed but marvelous. That’s how it’s been since its birth. That’s how it’ll be until it stops existing. I’m fine with that.