World Baseball Classic: is it worth it?

To play in the WBC is an easy decision for future HOFer Derek Jeter, but the game's younger stars are more wary of the tournament.

To play in the WBC is an easy decision for future HOFer Derek Jeter, but the game’s younger stars are more wary of the tournament.

In March, a significant chunk of MLB players will abandon the comfy confines of their spring training homes in either Florida or Arizona to represent their country in the World Baseball Classic. This  year will be the tournament’s third iteration after tournaments in 2006 and 2009. On paper, the WBC is a great concept. It’s a way for ballplayers to represent their country, pitting teammates from one MLB team against each other as they don the colors of their country rather than their employer. While the intent of the WBC is clear, the timing is rather inconvenient. While established and in some cases future Hall of Famers like Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter want to leave spring ball behind for the WBC, no one bats an eye. As long as they were healthy, Jones and Jeter were going to be fine if they missed a few days of spring training in order to represent the United States. It’s the younger stars that remain the issue.

Those final few weeks of spring training are a key part of baseball season, where you can work out kinks in your swing and make the minor adjustments that make a major difference during the regular season. Many Braves fans are quick to blame the World Baseball Classic of 2006 on Jeff Francoeur’s quick decline. The Braves’ latest superstar outfielder–Jason Heyward–has already turned down an invite to the WBC in order to focus on the regular season. It’s a difficult decision for young MLB stars, who obviously want to represent their countries on an international stage, but at the same time want to adequately prepare for the MLB regular season.

There is no easy solution for the WBC. It’s a great concept that runs into a very big problem: baseball season is long. After spring training, a six month regular season, and playoffs, it’s challenging to find a time when the WBC would turn into the World Cup-style tournament its creators envision. Major Leaguers aren’t apt to play in a major tournament just weeks following the MLB season, so putting the WBC in November or early December wouldn’t work. At this point, most players are getting into workout routines and starting the early preparations for the long season ahead, so even January or early February is probably out of the question. There’s also the injury factor that must be considered. A big-time MLB player turns his ankle rounding second on his way to third, misses the start of the regular season, and ends up losing significant playing time as a result, thus adversely affecting his team.

It’s all a big risk and while many players are willing to take that risk in order to represent their country on an international stage, others are still wary of a tournament that’s still having a difficult time finding its place in the world of baseball. If the regular season wasn’t so long, it wouldn’t be out of the question to hold the tournament in the middle of the regular season, shutting down the league much like the NHL does for the Winter Olympics (work stoppages aside) or professional soccer leagues stop playing for the World Cup. Baseball just doesn’t have the luxury of a two week stoppage in regular season play with a 162-game schedule (plus playoffs). It’s inefficient to do so and would be a huge momentum killer for those cruising by midseason.

There is no solution other than interrupting spring training for players (and after all, a player can always turn down an invitation to play in the WBC) and hoping like hell the star of your team isn’t hurt during the course of the tournament. Personally, I’m excited to watch international players that we don’t see in Major League Baseball and to see MLB players proudly taking the field for their country. Hopefully this year’s WBC will justify its existence and people continue to appreciate baseball for becoming a powerhouse international sport. It’ll be great to see high quality baseball in mid-March as we all prepare for the regular season and I’ll be tuning into the MLB Network to check out this year’s edition of the World Baseball Classic.

 

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