Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Justin Verlander needs to play in the next WBC

Quote of the Day:

"Right now, the highlight of my career is playing in the WBC, wearing that red, white and blue on my chest" 

-- Brandon Phillips

In an alternate universe, Justin Verlander is starting the championship final of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.  

He shuts down the Dominican Republic with a 98-mph heater for four innings  before handing the ball over to David Price.  A solo home run from Prince Fielder and a double from Bryce Harper that scores Mike Trout in the 3rd inning puts the US up 2-0.  

Matt Kemp steps up in the 6th and blasts a moonshot that clears the AT&T Park left field wall, scoring Joe Mauer and Ryan Braun.  Two solid, scoreless innings from Price and manager Joe Torre steps out of the dugout to hand the ball to Clayton Kershaw for two innings before hometown hero Matt Cain closes out the game to his fellow Giant catcher, Buster Posey, handing the USA the Title and and undefeated World Baseball Classic.  

Sounds pretty cool, right? 

In reality though, the U.S. got eliminated by Puerto Rico last Friday bringing their overall record in the World Baseball Classic to 10-10 in the history of the tournament.  They have yet to advance to the final.  While the World Baseball Classic has yet to captivate and capture the casual fans, this is not the type of finish that a country that considers the sport its "national past time" would be proud of.  In addition to lukewarm fans, the fact is that the US was also lacking in talent.     

Though the US had  a talented roster, this was not the best roster, or even close to the best players that the United States could have put on the diamond.  (No offense to the Ryan Vogelsongs and Eric Hosmers of the team)  And while that's not an excuse to be shut out over six innings by Nelson Figueroa -- a 38-year-old journeyman pitcher who couldn't make the freakin' ASTROS during his last MLB go-round, as a country, we should make a larger priority to field the best team possible.   

There are valid reasons that star players decide not to participate in the classic.  Concerns over injury are probably the biggest (and most rationale) factors in players choosing the suns of Arizona and Florida over an exhibition contest.  Opponents will look no further than David Wright or Mark Teixeira who suffered dings to their body that could keep them out of the opening day lineup.

Also, the World Baseball Classic is far from perfect.  The timing during Spring Training is not ideal and there's a plethora of other problems.  But no offense to guys like Jeremy Affeldt or Glen Perkins but can you imagine a starting American rotation of Justin Verlander, David Price, Matt Cain, C.C. Sabathia or Jered Weaver?  Starting pitching alone could have made the United States the prohibitive favorite every four years during the Classic.  

So, why Chris?  Why should stars like Justin Verlander or Prince Fielder risk injury to play in a exhibition game of a second-tier sporting event that is neither ideal nor convenient?  

One answer: Because they can.  

These are the most common reasons to not play in the WBC.  I will try and use my imperfect and often incoherent reasoning to try and dissect such excuses not to participate, so let's see if you follow.  

Perhaps the most valid excuse, but really think about it: anyone can get injured anytime.  Anyone who's played baseball for something other than a contract or scholarship should get this (except for maybe the Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg's agent)  You don't "not" play the game of baseball to not get play to win and (hopefully) to have fun.  Sure narcissists will point and say "What about Teixeira, Wright, blah, blah, blah."  Skipping the WBC won't automatically keep you more injury free than spring training.  Right, Curtis Granderson?  

While pitchers are different (in both value and the way they're used), one can argue that pitchers are pampered and protected more during the WBC than in spring training.  There is a strict innings and days pitching limited -- one perhaps more stringent than any given MLB manager in spring training.  I don't buy this excuse.  

Yep.  Technically the WBC is ultimately an exhibition game.  So is spring training.  Yes, there are flaws but at least WBC players are playing with something on the line.  Outside of the fringe players hoping for one or two open roster spots, there's not much motivation to try very hard in Grapefruit or Cactus League play.  And by the way, wouldn't the better way to get into shape for Opening Day, be to actually play competitive baseball?  Or would players rather get loose and get their mechanics and groove back by watching journeyman pitchers toss them ball four or smacking a batting-practice type fastball against a seventh year rookie?  Is striking out Double A players that are trying to make a big league roster the best use of a pitcher's spring training preparation?   

What about national pride?  And not the American, sports world conquering superpower mentality that sweeps up band wagon fans every Olympics for sports they know nothing about (you know that guy who yells, "EFFING RIGHT US TABLE TENNIS TEAM! MERICIA!).  I'm talking about American baseball fans that love this game and love this country.  Like anyone still reading this blogpost.  You love baseball and you love America.  Oh, you're really good at baseball too?  Want to play in the World Baseball Classic?  Who would say no?  Just do it.  

Tell that to the Dominican crowds waving flags.  Or the Puerto Rico crowds banging drums.  Or any other fans who really got into the Classic this year.  I know MLB players play for October, not for March.  I'm not naive enough to believe that paychecks should suddenly take a backseat to pride but it's about dang time we win this thing. Patriotism should be incentive enough.  It's our national pastime.  It only happens every four years.  We are America and this is our game.  Again, just do it.  

Maybe.  But I don't see Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano skipping the Classic for their countries.  Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs crown jewel, was suiting up for Italy.  Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Ichiro, Adrian Gonzalez, are a few of the star players that suited up this year. The United States was simply not the best team in the field.  And it showed.  And it shouldn't happen.  In comparison, most hockey stars love to play (and do play) in the Winter Olympics.  

It reminds me of the U.S. Olympic basketball squads that sat out 2004 and watched that version of the "Dream" Team sputter to a bronze medal finish.  It was that bad until LeBron and Co. made it cool to play for your country again.  Again, it should be about national pride.  And since baseball is out at the Olympics, we might as well encourage the best of the best to play.  Maybe this is just the wake up call American baseball needed.  And if they still don't want to participate, I know a lot of Bluffton University players that would be proud to represent our country.  Who knows, they might do better after a great start to their 2013 season in Flordia. (#beaverpride #shoutout)  Quit making excuses and JUST DO IT

(Can I also get a Nike sponsorship for this blog up in here?)  

Fixes for the World Baseball Classic:

It's clear that the World Baseball Classic has flaws (ask Team Mexico and Team Canada how that tie-breaker rule works in Pool Play).  But it's been a smash-hit for international exposure, with ratings that would make Bud Selig actually smile and mean it.  Whether you like it or not, or watch it or not, the World Baseball Classic is good for baseball around the world.  So with the third WBC done and wrapped up, here's a few changes I would make to make it even bigger and better.

6.  An opening ceremony  
That would be cool.  How many fans didn't even know it had started?  Throw some international legends in to the festivities.  Maybe an International home run derby?  A skills challenge?  A video tribute honoring international players and teams?  You can do a lot of fun things during an opening ceremony.  I'll leave the details to the committee to figure out those detail, but an opening ceremony would be a great way to start it off. 

5.  Start the games earlier 
If there's one job in baseball I don't want, it's the position of WBC scheduler (well, that and A-Rod's publicist).  In addition to juggling multiple sites and trying to guarantee full seats they'd also have to keep the ratings high on Asian television networks . But how many people in the Eastern Time Zone didn't even bother tuning into any opening round games?  I'm not saying it's will be easy, but it's worth looking into.

4.  Move the timing to November  
How about right after the World Series?  Sounds good to me!  Not only would it relieve the depression of the end of baseball season but you can also bet more stars willing to play with a full two months before they really have to do anything.  Plus, who wants to compete with March Madness and actual spring training?  Which is a Red Sox fan going to watch?  The Sox spring training game or China Taipei take on Australia?  Will a casual sports fan flip over to MLB Network when their alma mater is a bubble team in the ACC Tourney?  Probably not.   

But would those same fans watch a stacked United States team take on a scrappy, speedy Japanese or Dominican team in a nationally televised WBC Final on a November Wednesday night?  If the choices are:

A. A fourth re-run of Sportcenter
B. NBA basketball: Golden State Warriors vs. Washington Wizards
C. The Longhorn Network
D. Porn
E. WBC FInal

I'm guessing most people would choose D or E.  

3.  Expand Television Coverage
How many baseball fans don't get MLB Network?  A lot.  A lot more don't get ESPN Deportes.  Give the broadcasting rights to ESPN or Fox.  I don't care.  NBA ratings went through the roof when they expanded coverage and moved games off tape delay back in the day.  It will happen with the WBC too.  Sure it will be expensive, but in today's 24-hour media environment and an audience with low attention spans, it would be a paramount investment for the future of the Classic.

2.  A different selection process.  
Provisional rosters are not due until January.  I say, start the selection process for the US team right after the All-Star break.  There's a lot of intrigue and debate that can be had for the roster selection.  Make it a long, drawn out and competitive process to garner interest over the summer.  Make John Gibbons the manager and have him fight the MLBers that won't play.  Have fans vote for their favorite player on Twitter.  I don't care.  Just find out some way for the die-hard baseball fans in this country to know their roster as soon as they can.  Preferably with some sort of fan engagement.  And also preferably before we turn on the first game and think, "I didn't know that R.A. Dickey was on the US team."

1.  One location, one city  
This one would be tough, but can you imagine the excitement in Tokyo, Toronto, Chicago, or even a Latin American country with 16 teams gathered to play baseball?  While it's nice to have fans from all over the world be able to catch the classic in person, a one-site format would reduce travel for most countries and allow MLB to focus their marketing and ticket-selling in one city, rather than four.  Have cities bid for the site like the World Cup.  What city wouldn't turn down any sort of tourism and revenue opportunity.  Pick a city every four years, get us excited now and let's play baseball!  

So while I won't be dying to see the next Classic in 2017 when it comes around again, I hope to see Mr. Verlander there.  It's about time to put America's name up on the trophy.  While many people tuned out, I had a blast watching it.  The more baseball, the better.  The passion from the players and fans was refreshing, genuine, and pure.  It's the way the game is supposed to be played and if there can be changes made to make that passion better, I'm for it.  Let's start with Justin Verlander.