The Seattle Mariners begin their Cactus League season today, and if that seems early to you, yep, it sure is. Spring training was pushed up this year to accommodate the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial tournament conceived as a version of soccer’s World Cup.
At least that was the idea behind the event, which began in 2006. While the WBC wasn’t the one-and-done flop skeptics thought it would be, the tournament hasn’t been the hit envisioned by proponents.
I was one of them. A three-week suspension of the big league season for the Summer Olympics wasn’t feasible, I figured, but a World Cup of baseball before the
major league season would entice the best players on the planet to participate. It faced growing pains, sure, but once a billion fans got accustomed to the tradition – a real World Series every four years – the WBC would be the talk of every town, on every corner of the planet.
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the WBC’s driving force, was similarly hopeful.
“Maybe not the next cycle, four years from now, but two cycles from now, this will be huge,” Selig gushed during a preliminary round in 2006.
Two cycles have passed, and on the eve of the third, “huge” is not an applicable adjective for Selig’s brainchild. Most baseball fans in the U.S. have come to look at the WBC as something between an annoyance and an occupational hazard awaiting their favorite players.
As for the players? Those from Latin American countries regard participation as an honor – a national-service commitment – but for others, the WBC is merely a diversion that breaks up the monotony of spring training.
Take Russell Martin. The catcher, who signed a free-agent contract with the Pirates over the winter, has secured a roster spot on Team Canada … as a shortstop. He didn’t want to invest the time required to learn about the nuances of pitchers he won’t catch during the regular season, but Martin, a former third baseman, was intrigued by the premise of picking and chucking at short for a few weeks.
At least Martin, 30, is on board for the WBC, which is more than can be said of younger colleagues whose presence on the field might appeal to an American television audience. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Buster Posey, David Price, Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are among those who are sitting this one out.
Felix Hernandez won’t pitch for Venezuela, and Ichiro Suzuki won’t swing a bat for two-time defending WBC champion Japan. A third gold medal for Japan appears improbable – its team will compete without any major leaguers.
What has gone wrong? Why isn’t the WBC the “huge” phenomenon Selig predicted?
It’s not complicated: Talented players command lucrative contracts. There’s too much money at stake for them to rev their engines for games in March that don’t count, before the real games begin in April.
Solutions? Rescheduling the WBC for the postseason – begin it, say, a week after the conclusion of the World Series – is one. Another would be to substitute the WBC for the All-Star Game every fourth year. Instead of a three-day break, there would be a three-week break for The Mother of All Baseball Tournaments.
An intriguing premise, but not likely in our lifetime, or our kids’ lifetime, or in the lifetime of the great grandchildren of the great grandchildren of our kids’ great children … you get the point.
Bud Selig took a swing at the baseball equivalent of a World Cup and thought he connected. He wasn’t alone. I was convinced he went yard, upper deck, off the light tower.
Seven years and nearly three WBC cycles later, Atlanta pitcher Kris Medlen, appointed to Team USA, withdrew from the tournament because of a family conflict: Medlen and his wife are expecting their first child in March.
Medlen, whose repertoire, delivery and demeanor are reminiscent of the great Greg Maddux, went 9-0, with an ERA of 0.97, after he earned a starting job midway through 2012. On a “Country Caravan” tour last month, he met the season-ticket holders of the Braves’ Double-A affiliate in Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta.
Asked about preparing for the WBC, Medlen said it was off. He was preparing, instead, for a newborn.
Gwinnett County is nothing if not patriotic. This place is the essence of mom and apple pie and the Stars and Stripes unfurled over every porch on the Fourth of July.
When Medlen told the audience he had declined an opportunity to pitch for Team USA, everything ailing baseball’s version of a World Cup was discernible in the reaction of the flag-waving folks in Gwinnett County.
They cheered.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com