Crowds roaring, flags waving, players lining up to sing their home anthems. It’s like the competition that reins in billions of viewers every four years. Except it’s not soccer; it’s the World Baseball Classic. The kind of tournament that baseball fans waited decades for is set for its third edition this March. Yet, the gloss isn’t nearly as beautiful as it should be. The model is missing some makeup, some essential touchups that would make the WBC the true tournament we’ve desired from Day One of crooning over the game. Yes, the teams that gave the global tournament a green light are still standing in front of their ultimate players, arms spread wide, preventing the greatest stars from playing for their country, and battling the Earth’s best talent on the dirt diamond.
While Team USA hardly suffers from All-Star malnutrition (R.A. Dickey, Ryan Braun, Craig Kimbrel, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, Giancarlo Stanton, oh my!) the best players in the biggest and most powerful baseball league in the world are missing from the 2013 WBC. Notable hitters who won’t play in the WBC include the Most Valuable Player and two-time World Series champ, Buster Posey, and super rookie phenoms Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Justin Verlander is a maybe, maybe, maybe to enter the WBC this March, but the other premier pitchers in the world – David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Jered Weaver, and Matt Cain – will not be allowed to play in the WBC. No, sir, the Rays and more clubs are all jealously saving their best talent for…Spring Training. Whomp.
MLB teams aren’t completely frugal with their stars. The San Francisco Giants denied their franchise catcher Posey from playing across the globe, but let their revelation pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, and eight other players meet up with teams around the world. But the biggest keys to the MLB vault are being guarded like gold. MLB players can’t decide their international fate themselves; they must be given the green light from their employer team to play in the WBC.
Players leaving teams for short loans is a relatively new quandary for Major League Baseball. Before 2006, the only time big league teams had to worry about their players being pinched from them was when a big wallet took them, the team, out of the equation in the free agency. So, of course MLB teams wanted to have a strong level of control over their players when the second pilfering was ratified. Teams want reassurance – especially smaller ones – that they aren’t bound to send their expensive talent to a tournament where they could be injured or not paying their salary due in game appearances. Take my players and relieve them from my payroll? Sure. Take my talent but don’t relieve them from my payroll? No, no, no, we won’t risk not getting our money’s worth.
But Major League teams know their lessons well: The strength of hundreds of players screaming to play for their home nations, and the yells from leagues around the world, are too strong to ignore altogether; soccer clubs know that. The only difference is this tournament, the WBC, is still very young, and fewer nations are involved. The lack of a give-all concerning players won’t start a war as it would with soccer if everyone wasn’t allowed to play in the tournament. So, MLB made a compromise for the right now: We agree to enter our players into the WBC, but we must give them permission to let them go. It’d be absolute lunacy if MLB teams weren’t somewhat flexible, not making a fuss over the number of players who to the WBC, instead wagging a finger when it comes to the most expensive, valuable stars. Teams can’t huddle all their players around them, but the message is clear: “We’ll give you a lot of greats, but you can only taste a few monsters.”
It’s understandable that MLB teams want to protect their assets right before the start of the regular season, but clubs should get completely on-board with the World Baseball Classic. The WBC is just as useful as Spring Training to prepare MLB players for the regular season. It’s, for the teams that advance that far, two-and-a-half weeks long in which players play ball essentially every day. The WBC higher-effort competition than the preparation of Spring Training, but baseball isn’t soccer; the injury risk is far lower even when it’s played at full-speed. In the WBC, pitchers get the reps and are held to pitch limits (65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second, and 95 in the Semi-finals and Finals) comparable to Spring Training, pitching more as more games are played, and batters get batting practice and swings in the games. Sounds like March baseball? Travel isn’t even a major issue, so teams don’t have to worry about their best talent being fatigued from constant flying. Aside from Pool A teams having to fly between hemispheres for games when Cuba plays, WBC teams won’t have to frequently travel across the world too often to play in the WBC. And let’s not forget the main appeal of the WBC over two-and-a-half extra weeks of Spring Training: It’s fun. Players get to compete, representing their heritage, and play much more intense and meaningful baseball than they would in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. They have their fun for less than three weeks, and then head back to their employers. That’s a faster turnaround than the FIFA World Cup.
The World Baseball Classic matters. It’s the greatest gathering of baseball talent on the planet, much like the World Cup is the greatest gathering of soccer talent. People outside the U.S. can see MLB stars play all the time; U.S. athletes are super stars around the world. Baseball stars that play in leagues in Japan, Italy, or anywhere outside the U.S., though, are relatively unknown to the average American spectator. The international stars simply aren’t spoken of unless they come to the Majors. Enter the WBC, then, the quadrennial chance for baseball fans to see the best players all in one tournament.
More importantly, though, the WBC matters because of the teams. There are no New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s USA, Japan, Cuba, and more. The WBC is centered on national pride. Every international competition stirs up madness and excitement in sports fans around the world – even in the U.S. It’s a short burst of a few weeks so it doesn’t become dull. It’s out of the ordinary, something baseball fans wait patiently for every four years. So, when the WBC does come around it should be the best product it can be. It deserves the best players. For the players, it’s truly the chance of a lifetime. Soccer players get a few chances every year to play for their country during international breaks; at best, MLB players get Winter Ball. For players that hail from other backgrounds, though, they don’t get this chance to earn global pride through their craft. MLB denying the best players from playing in the tournament denies this occurrence the chance to grow, and disallows people the opportunity to see the absolute best baseball on Earth. It’s crowds roaring, flags waving, players lining up to sing their home anthems. It’s training while competing for gold before the regular season begins. It’s the only time baseball players feel unified with the game outside of their own sphere. It’s the World Baseball Classic, and the diamonds across the world, for those two-and-a-half weeks, need the premier talent from the premier league in the world.