Baseball doesn’t need a world “classic,” I wrote four years ago.
And thus the phone rang that morning, and it was Fort Worth’s Mr. Baseball, Bobby Bragan. The always-invigorating Bragan, who passed away in 2010, was calling to tell me that he had enjoyed my column about the then-upcoming World Baseball Classic.
He liked it so much, in fact, Bragan said, that he had emailed it to his old friend, baseball commissioner Bud Selig — the founding father of the WBC.
I winced. And what did the commissioner say about the column, I asked?
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“He said it stunk,” Bragan flatly reported.
It wasn’t the style that Selig objected to, Bobby said, but rather the substance of my message.
Baseball not only needed the WBC as part of its plan for globalization, the commissioner argued, but he was also determined to make the Classic a ringing success.
Selig’s mission hasn’t changed in four years, it seems. My consternation over the whole event hasn’t changed much, either.
As I wrote back then, with a wry aside to the commissioner’s Milwaukee Brewers heritage, “The World Baseball Classic is not commissioner Bud Selig’s worst idea. But it's in the top three, right behind November World Series games and putting Gorman Thomas in polyester.”
The first WBC in 2006 was generally viewed as a hastily assembled response to baseball’s sudden and embarrassing ouster from the Olympic Games.
Selig had seen, however, the global marketing fortunes reaped by the NBA. There are 118 nations that belong to the International Baseball Federation.
There are Mike Trout and Justin Verlander jerseys to be sold in all those countries. There are T-shirts. There are MLB iPad apps.
But a flag-waving, multi-national baseball tournament, right in the middle of spring training?
The only thing that most baseball players want to wave in March is a 9-iron.
Thus, the idea’s fatal flaw — the tepid response it has inspired from the American players. To them, spring training is a ritualistic exercise not to be disturbed. Pitching arms must be nurtured like mustard seeds.
Whoops! There went Verlander, who begged out of the WBC last week because, well, it was going to interfere with his preparations for the Detroit Tigers season. Same with catchers Buster Posey and Matt Wieters.
“I like the concept of it,” Rangers president Nolan Ryan said back in 2009. “But the challenge is the timing of it.”
It’s not just the availability, either, but the physiologies of the players involved.
There are few endeavors in sports as leisurely as a spring exhibition game. Pitchers used to jog in the outfield. Managers watch not from the dugout, but from a folding chair next to the on-deck circle.
Once the WBC participants put on a jersey, however, with their homeland’s name stitched across the front, it’s not an exhibition any more.
Good pitching not only wins the WBC, in other words, but also who can generate the most mid-March adrenalin.
The first U.S. team in 2006 wasn’t shy on superstars. It boasted Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and the Rangers’ Michael Young.
That team was knocked out in Round Two of the Classic. The 2009 team was eliminated in the semifinals by Japan.
This year’s Team USA won’t lack big names in its starting lineup. David Wright, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Joe Mauer have all agreed to play.
But once again, the problem has been finding top-of-the-rotation Major League Baseball pitchers who are willing to disrupt their March routines.
The ace of manager Joe Torre’s staff this time? R.A. Dickey.
For Rangers lefty Derek Holland, the tournament could become a maturing moment in his young career, or an irretrievably wasted month.
Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, but apparently even the Japanese now are having trouble rounding up their home team. Ichiro and Yu Darvish have declined to play.
As long as Selig is around, though, the WBC probably isn’t going away.
Planet baseball needs it, he thinks.
But that’s not a classic idea.