The WBC: Where Have You Gone, Yang Yang? A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Brian D. O'LearyCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2009

BEIJING - AUGUST 18:  Yang Yang #2 of China celebrates after hitting a home run against the United States at the Wukesong Baseball Field on Day 10 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 18, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) needs a change. The idea is grand in scope and admirable, but the quality of play and the format both stink right now.

The spin-meisters are already out there talking about attendance and ratings.

Official attendance figures in the 2009 classic were up about 8.5 percent according to Sports Business Daily. (The television ratings were higher, as well, they say.) The 20,549 average attendance figure over 39 games exceeded the 18,900 39-game average in 2006.

Total available capacity for the games, though, increased 34 percent with nearly 374,000 more seats available for fans in 2009. 

Perhaps a more telling statistic about the state of the WBC is total attendance as a percentage of capacity, which dropped more than 12 percent, from roughly 67 percent to about 55 percent. 

While the three games of the 2006 Finals nearly filled PETCO Park in San Diego on average (99.4 percent), the more spacious Dodger Stadium filled slightly more than 84 percent of capacity in 2009.

Even more jarring is if one considers that the home country—the host country, United States—could not even fill the ballpark in its one semifinal appearance. (The U.S. squad didn't make it out of the second round of pool play in the first event but still hosted the Finals in San Diego.)

Attendance is but a symptom of the real problems, I’d argue. While attendance indeed struggled both years, the WBC chooses to spin it their way. The public has no control over such shenanigans, so we'll get to what the underlying issues of which we can do something about—perhaps with pens, voices, and pocketbooks if one so chooses.

The first problem is in the quality of play. Teams are ranked by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). These rankings do not to take into account that fact that some nations supplying Major League Baseball with superstars rarely field national teams of any stature.

The IBAF is a far cry from FIFA (soccer’s international body) or FIBA (basketball) when it comes to accurately ranking a nation’s athletic team.

With the WBC having a 16-team format, we may see the likes of Spain—a historical total of four native-born major leaguers—entering the fray and perhaps the Dominican Republic (472 native-born and counting) sitting on the sidelines in the 2013 event.

The Dominican Republic or Colombia doesn't send teams to international competition with any regularity. Colombia has exactly two appearances in international competition during the last rankings period and hasn’t played in the WBC. 

(Two of the top shortstops of the last decade—Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera—and at least three other active Major Leaguers are Colombians.)

The WBC is the only real showcase for the Dominican national team, as well. The DR, too, has seen just two international tournaments in the same period, not including the WBC.

An under-performing ninth-place finish in 2009, ironically, helped the Dominicans in the world rankings. They flip-flopped spots with the Spaniards and are now considered the 16th best baseball-playing nation in the world by the IBAF.

This doesn't pass the smell test with me.

Why should not entering in competitions such as the Under-16 Youth Worlds and the Honkbol Tournament have any bearing on whether the Dominican Republic or Colombia fields a team for the WBC over an arguably undeserving nation? 

While the WBC doesn't choose nations strictly on their world rankings, it is a major consideration.

Politics play a large role, I'd guess. Red China competes and holds the 14 spot in the rankings, primarily from hosting (and playing in) the 2008 Olympics and playing in the 2006 WBC (as a gesture to get the team more international games before their automatic bid as host country in the Olympiad).

The Chinese squad generally, and sadly, plays opossum on the diamond, save what appeared to be Yang's embarrassment-reducing ninth-inning dinger against the Americans during the Beijing Games.

(I'd take a David Ortiz-led Dominican squad into Beijing to battle Yang Yang and his boys of summer any day. Twice on Sundays, if that's allowed, too.)

On the other hand, Colombia is a narco-state by most accounts, and it is not shocking that a baseball team—assuming it even has a semblance of one—is shunned by the international community.

A native-born Italian has not played in the Majors since 1962, while there are five Colombians in the big leagues right now. The Italian national team—largely comprised of Americans allowed to skirt normal international rules of athletic competition—is ranked 13 and the Colombians come in at 24, one slot below the British.

Who knew?

The major problem: format. Professional baseball revolves around the series—a set of games—both during the season and in the postseason. Sudden-death is only used for the 163rd game of the year in MLB, and only if necessary.

The WBC consists of primarily sudden-death and meaningless games. Seeding games after elimination games?  Please.

The only way proper teams can compete within the series-play format is in November, after the World Series. With the MLB season ended, the quality of baseball is still much better than the junk we see on the field in March.

Managers would get the bulk of their country's best players (especially if the prize money was significant). The coaching staff wouldn't have to mollycoddle the talent for their club team.

Any waiver should be granted.  The Americans, Dominicans, Panamanians, and Venezuelans—amongst others—routinely leave able-bodied stars off their rosters for one reason or another. 

This must stop.  (As must skipping around from nation-to-nation as Alex Rodriguez was wont, but ultimately unable, to do this year.)

Cut the number of teams in half, or at least down by four. They could even play an event like what the WBC is now during the previous year's March in order to seed teams and come up with the final eight teams to play during the next November.

Seeds one, four, five, and eight are in one bracket. The remaining seeds take the opposite bracket. Round One is the best-of-five. Round Two and the Finals are best-of-seven.

Your pitching staffs are complete and healthy. The rosters can be tailored to win. A champion emerges.

Other than the professional players and whatever prize money exists, the WBC is run like an amateur event for the most part.  We should not judge the quality of our best players—Major League Baseball professionals by-and-large—with an amateur measuring stick.

Another option is to say, "screw it all," and take the Japanese club champion and play a literal "world" series against the MLB World Series champ, like Bobby Valentine has oft advocated for.

This way we don't have to bother with getting pseudo-national teams together for everyone.

On second thought, why not just bag the whole thing and realize that the World Series is, was, and will always be the pinnacle of baseball on the world stage?

Games sell out. Teams go for broke. The best players in the world gather starting in February to compete for a spot on a roster come October.

These last pleasant notions, and a good pillow, will get me to sleep better tonight.  Coo-coo-cachoo.


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