What Is Wrong with the World Baseball Classic?
Josh Hamilton chose to focus on Spring Training. Carlos Pena went down with an abdominal injury. A.J. Burnett stated, "It's just not for me."
Others simply said "No."
Among those who will not be joining the American team at the 2009 World Baseball Classic are: 2008 American League Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, 2008 National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, 2008 NL Most Valuable Player runner-up Ryan Howard, and perfect closer Brad Lidge. You can add CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Cole Hamels, Brandon Webb, and Ben Sheets to that ever-growing list, as well.
Most of those names represent the upper echelon of Major League Baseball.
Without their participation, the team fielded by the United States in 2009 will not resemble the best America has to offer.
This year's squad, while certainly an improvement over 2006, is a shadow of what it could be.
While other countries like Japan, Cuba, and Korea have no problem securing their stars, American team manager Davey Johnson has struggled, despite personal pleas to some players, to form the penultimate U.S. group.
After Johnson grabbed Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as his first starter (and seemingly a player ambassador), he shot straight for the top, adding AL MVP Dustin Pedroia to the roster shortly thereafter. Additional player responses trickled in, denials mixed almost evenly among commitments.
Some have valid excuses. Sheets is an injury-prone free agent, and for him to pitch is playing with fire. Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants' young star, pitched 80 more innings in 2008 than his previous career-high and should be given some time off as to not exacerbate an issue that should have been addressed at the end of last season.
Others, such as Howard, Teixeira, Sabathia, Halladay, and Lidge, are extremely durable and have relatively clear injury histories. Their non-participation leaves one scratching one's head.
Japan's Ichiro Suzuki participated in the 2006 Classic and vows to "try to win the WBC in earnest again." Takashi Saito, despite a lingering elbow injury, wants to be "blessed with the opportunity." Red Sox ace Diasuke Matsuzaka is poised and ready to repeat his 2006 WBC MVP performance. Fellow Red Sox player Hideki Okajima is expected to commit despite his immense value to the Sox bullpen.
With the Japanese players' responses, the word "honor" is constant.
Almost all of the surprising Cuban team will be returning in an effort to best its second place finish in 2006. The team is a source of international pride and is full of the island's biggest stars, including outfielders Yoandy Garlobo, Frederich Cepeda, and Osmany Urrutia.
The only players not likely to return are pitcher Yadel Marti and outfielder Yasser Gomez, who have been removed from the team's roster for attempted defection. The rest of the team is bolstered with first-class stars from the country's 2008 Olympic and 2004 International Baseball Federation World Cup teams.
In 2006, South Korea was playing for far more than national pride; they were playing for exemption from mandatory military service. This year, that crux is no longer applicable, but still most of the team will return to play for their home country. The Korean team is coming off an amazing run at the Beijing Olympics, where it went undefeated in nine games on the way to capturing the gold.
The Japanese, Cuban, and Korean sentiment of playing for pride and honor is not completely lost on American superstars.
Alex Rodriguez is playing for the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic despite holding the largest contract in the history of Major League Baseball. There's been a lot said about A-Rod's motivation and heart, but it's clear that he's a passionate ballplayer, no matter what picture the media portrays of him.
He's going to be playing on the star-studded Dominican team, a group that outlasted the Americans in 2006. Rodriguez will not be playing for himself, but for a dream of his mother's and for the hope that his home country can win the Classic.
According to Rodriguez, it will be a very special day for him and his family to once again play in a Dominican uniform.
Most of the other participating American players in the Classic have unquestionable heart, too.
There's Pedroia; the dirtdog, the underdog, and the MVP. There's Mark DeRosa, who'll play anywhere asked, as long as it's on the diamond. There's Chipper Jones, who's done it all and has nothing left to prove. There's David Wright, who's played 160 games in three of his four full professional seasons. There's Curtis Granderson, who lives, breathes, blogs, and sleeps baseball. There's Grady Sizemore, who plays every game like it's his last and who, with one botched diving catch, can become this century's Ken Griffey Jr.
And then there's the rotation of Roy Oswalt, Scott Kazmir and Jake Peavy—perennial Cy Young contenders looking to play the game they love on the world stage.
It's clear that some American stars are being held back by the teams they play for. In the 2009 Classic, besides Rodriguez and Jeter, there are no Yankees. There's only two Phillies, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, despite invitations extended to Howard, Lidge, and Hamels.
After spending nearly $425 million acquiring Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira, New York will not take a chance on injuring its newest stars. It's an understandable situation, albeit, an unfortunate one.
Philadelphia players, fresh off their "World" Championship victory, do not offer a similarly pertinent reason.
Another example of a player being denied entrance into the World Baseball Classic by the team he plays for is the Cleveland Indians' breakout semi-star Shin-Soo Choo. A Korean native, Choo wishes to play for his home team, despite the unforgiving promise of military service in the near future. Still, he is not allowed, simply stating that, "If the [Indians] say no, I can't."
While it is commonplace for Major League Baseball teams to protect their stars in events such as the Classic, the event's coordinators have taken steps to ensure player's safety.
There is a pitch count. While the pitch count will increase in 2009, it is still relatively small, hovering somewhere around 75 pitches, depending on round. While the level of competition at the WBC is heads and tails above Spring Training, pitchers will not be overextended or overworked in game situations. For example, pitchers are not be allowed beyond the pitch limit and are removed after completing their last batter, even if it means being removed in the middle of an inning.
In addition, there is a large enough bench where players can be replaced if they begin to feel uncomfortable with the workload.
Of course, there is no way to completely protect superstars' safety. There is an inherent risk playing in the World Baseball Classic, just like there is an inherent risk in Spring Training, the Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game, or driving in a car, or walking on ice.
Another strike against the WBC is that it removes players from their home club's Spring Training.
This year, WBC players must report to camp with pitchers and catchers, a new regulation. This way, players can catch up with new teammates and take the necessary steps management feels they must make in order to be in game-ready shape.
Critics of the World Baseball Classic also believe that players suffer down years following participation. While it is true that some players did suffer breakdowns following the 2006 Classic, others compiled career years.
One famous breakdown is former Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis. In 2005, Willis was 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. In 2006, Willis' ERA jumped to 3.87 and he finished 12-12. It's been downhill ever since.
Others who suffered include Moises Alou and Chad Cordero.
On the other side of things, several players actually broke out, posting their best career numbers in 2006.
David Ortiz mashed 54 home runs and 137 RBI.
Albert Pujols hit 49 round-trippers and knocked in 137.
Johan Santana posted a league leading 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts.
The breakdown/breakout argument has many flaws.
First, in players such as Willis and Cordero, there were always questions regarding their performance sustainability. Willis' violent, unorthodox mechanics were bound to break down at some point. In addition, Willis had always posted relatively pedestrian walks and hit per inning pitched outside of his career year in 2005. In the case of Cordero, who was never truly bad, it was merely a case of a bad body catching up to him.
Did it help Ortiz, Pujols, and Santana warm up for the MLB season? Truthfully, who knows? All three were proven stars hitting their prime and there's no real way to tell.
The World Baseball Classic has the potential to create a new international buzz for baseball not seen since the Mariner's signing of Suzuki.
But with the Major League's Cy Young award winners, MVP candidates, and award winners sitting the event out, how is the team America is putting forward represent the best we have to offer?
With nearly equal parts of American baseball fans, media, players, and managers vilifying or heralding the Classic, it is apparent that there is something holding back this extremely promising event.
Is it simple indifference by premier American players towards our (not Korea, Japan, or Cuba's) great pastime? Or is there something more.
If top-tier American players continue to deny invitations to play, the American team will severely dilute the World Baseball Classic product.
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