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WBC on the mind

by Matt Smith

I hope you’ve all been having fun watching/listening to some Spring Training action (I doubt it’s been hailing in Florida or Arizona today!). Am I the only person who gets a bit frustrated by the way some commentators constantly refer to spring training stats though? You can’t tell much about how a pitcher is throwing on the back of 15 innings work in practice games, just as a guy who gets 8 hits in 16 at-bats isn’t now a true .500 hitter.

The one downside to this year’s Spring Training is the absence of the World Baseball Classic, the tournament that caused such excitement in its first outing last year. Not that I believe the thirty Major League organizations will share this view. The tournament itself was a great success, but there was always going to be some disruption to the established preparation period and it’s rare to find a sport that welcomes change unless there is an immediate financial reward to sweeten the pill.

The “club versus country debate” will always be a hot topic. Fans are probably more accepting of the situation in Britain because international competition has been a central part of our sports for many years, but it is a relatively new problem to negotiate in Major League Baseball. The truth is that both sides have valid arguments in their favour. Players and supporters alike enjoy the passion and pride created by international competition, making it something that people want to be a part of. The teams meanwhile have a lot of money invested in their players and have every right to be nervous about letting their assets slip from their protective paws. Players themselves are also well aware who pays their cheques and would naturally be hesitant to do anything that might negatively effect their career (e.g. by picking up an injury in such a tournament).

You will never reach a perfect solution, but a workable compromise is always available so long as there is an open dialogue between the two camps. In baseball, the players union is doing its bit to help develop the WBC into a long-term success. As a supporter of the concept, it was very heartening to read MLB.com’s recent report on the topic in which they state that the tournament will be “welcomed back with open arms” according to Donald Fehr, the players union executive director. Fehr has been conducting his annual tour of the spring training camps and has reported a lot of positive feedback from the players, whose support is crucial if the event is going to be a success.

Two things stood out the most to me in MLB.com’s report. Firstly that the players have been giving Fehr their suggestions on how to improve the tournament. 2006 was the inaugural staging of the WBC so there was always going to be things that worked well and things that didn’t quite pan out as expected. They key was that 2006 proved the tournament had a lot of potential and having players actively contribute to it’s development, via their union, can only be a good thing.

While this was very encouraging, Fehr’s comments about the timing of the event were even more welcome to me. Fehr gave his backing to holding the Classic in March, going so far as to state: “It’s impossible, I think, to do it any other time”. I’ve long advocated that for the WBC to be effective as an event to sell baseball to the wider world, it must be played in March. Halting the Major league season at the midway point to play the tournament would devalue both competitions and is not a valid option in my book. The only real alternative is to play it after the World Series in November. From all perspectives, this doesn’t look to be a good idea either. The players have just worked their way through a marathon season, so tagging on an extra tournament is likely to lead to more player withdrawals and tired performances, reducing the intensity of the games and increasing the likelihood of injuries.

If MLB wants to use the WBC as a way to sell the sport, holding it in November makes no sense at all. The entertainment world is highly competitive and therefore it is likely that a lot of potential new fans created by the WBC would be lost in the four or more months of inactivity after the tournament. To have the maximum effect, the WBC should take its place as the starter to the regular season main course and the post-season dessert. I’m glad that Donald Fehr agrees!

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