Every four years when the Olympics or World Cup comes around, we’re given a glimpse of what this tournament could be. Whether it be basketball, soccer or hockey, players are more than willing to sacrifice their time and their bodies to not just represent their country, but form a pool featuring the best of the best of the best in their respective sport.
The players representing their home countries in the WBC are no such thing.
Let’s put this in simple terms. Team USA will feature a starting rotation of R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Vogelsong, Ross Detwiler and Derek Holland. While there are some great young arms in that group (and Dickey, too), they are not representative of the best American players that Major League Baseball has to offer.
How about a starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Stephen Strasburg and David Price?
The basic problem with the WBC is that people tune into such a tournament to see the absolute cream of the crop of competition. But since there’s apparently no urgency on the part of players to participate, why should there be any urgency to actually watch the games?
On Thursday Kershaw said that he not regrets not participating in the Classic, and after finishing in the top two in Cy Young voting the past two seasons it’s unfortunate that he’s not there. But moreover, Kershaw showed that the problem with WBC participation is twofold.
For one, as Kershaw stated, players’ supreme loyalty is clearly to their club teams — to borrow some soccer speak. While this makes sense insofar as these players are all taking large paychecks to perform for their regular-season clubs, it highlights how much soccer players or hockey players want to participate in international competition and represent their country.
But aside from that, teams, too, are putting pressure on players not to leave camp, as Kershaw admitted the Dodgers did with him. Obviously the Dodgers have a lot of their success wrapped up in that of Kershaw, but it’s still unfortunate, at the very least, that teams are allowed to put pressure on their players not to participate in the WBC.
ESPN’s Jim Bowden recently floated the idea that WBC participation should be mandatory, and it’s mostly an admirable thought. However, it’s not only not realistic, but it’s also antithetical to what such a tournament really should be about. Players should want to play for their countries, not be forced to.
What really needs to be eliminated from the selection process are excuses for players who have since since recovered from injuries over the offseason. Kershaw, again, is an example of this, as the reason he cited for not playing with Team USA was a hip injury that caused him to miss a couple starts at the tail end of last season.
But despite the fact that Kershaw actually made his last start of the season, the injury was still used as an excuse not to play for his country. He wanted to show the Dodgers he was ready.
The fact of the matter is that injuries are just going to be a part of the risk with this, or any similar tournament. Baseball has a unique grind of a season, so the ideal solution may be to shorten the MLB season back to its old 154-game schedule every three years, and take two weeks off during the middle of the year — while players are in midseason form — to play the WBC.
However, such a solution will likely never be considered due to the loss of revenue in attendance and television advertising from playing four less home games for each team. Thus, it’s difficult to see a solution with scheduling the WBC that won’t continue to marginalize the tournament.
So, as much potential as the World Baseball Classic has as a showcase of international talent, it will never pique interest here in the United States until the best players are on display. And the best players will never play so long as roadblocks like team interference and marginal injury excuses continue to be tolerated.
The World Baseball Classic is at an impasse.
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