McAdam: A Classic case of irrelevance

McAdam: A Classic case of irrelevance
March 14, 2013, 3:00 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The World Baseball Classic is building to a feverish pitch. Japan and the Netherlands have already advanced to the championship round, and the U.S. could join them soon.
It's a captivating event. There's tension with every pitch. The games are filled with emotion.
Or so I'm told.
Me? I'm not paying much attention. Sure, I've seen the highlights and watched a few innings here and there. But I suspect that I'm like a lot of American baseball fans: My interest only goes so far.
It's hard to watch an international event designed to determine world superiority when the Team U.S.A. roster looks like a .500 team from the N.L. Central.
Where is Justin Verlander? Or Clayton Kershaw? Or David Price?
Answer: In, respectively, Lakeland, Glendale, and Port Charlotte, with their teams, getting ready for the start of the season.
And that's part of the problem. When the best pitchers don't participate for fear of injury or over-use, then the WBC doesn't feature the game's best. Or were you under the impression that Ross Detwiler was one of the five best American-born starting pitchers in the game?
The concept of the World Baseball Classic is admirable enough -- to expand the game's footprint and popularity. Like the other pro leagues, baseball wants its game known and loved in every corner of the world, and the WBC helps in that regard.
In the Far East, this year's WBC is doing huge TV numbers. And no doubt, Team Netherland's success is doing wonders for the game in Eurpoe.
But here in the U.S., the WBC can't seem to gain much traction. It's wedged into a busy sports month and getting lost behind college basketball conference tournaments and NFL free agency. Even hardcore baseball fans have yet to focus on much more than spring-training line scores.
Baseball's season is so long that it's hard to find a place for it on the crowded sports calendar. MLB is not about to shut down for a few weeks in the middle of its season, the way the attention-starved NHL does quadrennially for the Olympics. After the season? Players are tired from the grind of the 162-game schedule, and if the WBC were to wait until November, after the World Series, most of the players would be coming off a one-month layoff.
So, March it is. But most teams don't want their players taking part and, subtlely or not, attempt to influence their players. Marketing the game is great and all, but in the eyes of general managers throughout the game, it's not worth losing your leadoff hitter or starting shortstop.
Even the managers are hamstrung. Because it's so early in the season, they can't let starting pitchers go more than three innings or so. And Joe Torre, Team USA's skipper, somewhat sheepishly admitted the other day that he felt compelled to get work for three of his relievers who hadn't yet appeared in the tourney, because, well, they had come all this way and it seemed like the right thing to do.
Without the best players taking part -- paging Mike Trout -- the games lack context. If Team USA fails to win the tournament again, it won't prove that the U.S. is losing its grip on the game it invented. It will instead prove that a handful of All-Stars (David Mauer, Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun) and some other pretty good major leaguers weren't as good as the same mix for another country.
But what about the emotion, you ask, the boyish joy evident on the faces of the victorious players? Well, yes, there's that. Especially for Latin players, for whom this tournament seems to mean the most -- almost to a disturbing degree.
Wonder how the New York Yankees felt when Robinson Cano equated a first-round -- FIRST ROUND! -- victory with winning the World Series in 2009?
(Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, of course, put it another way: "I think winning the World Series is a little bit more important than whatever trophy they give for the World Baseball Classic." You could almost picture Hamels patting the WBC on the head as he said this.)
Perhaps the WBC means more to countries who feel they have something to prove -- in Latin America and the Far East. Here in the U.S., where baseball struggles to connect to younger fans, it's simply business as usual.
I covered some of the WBC in 2009 and most of the news seemed to be centered around some nagging injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Daisuke Matsuzaka. The event was fun, a distraction from the monotony of seven weeks of spring training, but I never got the sense I was watching anything epic, or even particularly significant.
The World Baseball Classic is partly modeled after soccer's World Cup -- international competition, marketing opportunities, TV events -- and it's here that Major League Baseball may have, inadvertently, aped its blueprint: Compared to the rest of the world, few people in this country care about that tournament, either.