Understanding the World Baseball Classic
Ernie Whitt knows it’s a sprint not a marathon
Managing baseball in this tournament format is far different than setting a rotation for a regular season. At some point, it’s no longer a meritocracy as to which pitcher starts what game. As manager, you know the order of your opponents and understand that you need to win 3-of-4 games to remain alive (or count on a tie-breaker at 2-2). You also know that it’s always a mistake to look past Game 1, which is why that assignment against Great Britain went to Cal Quantrill. Never assume a win.
Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt clearly understood those realities when he chose to throw 19-year-old lefthander Mitch Bratt into the red-hot frying pan that was Game 2 of the World Baseball Classic’s first round, to face a powerful Team USA. Bratt emerged battered and bloodied by a lineup that featured an array of MVPs, All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers, failing to escape the first inning. It was ugly.
Bratt, a Texas Rangers’ top prospect, will learn about finding the ability to control his swirling thoughts, remembering to breathe and the tsunami of emotions and will be that much better his next time out. It’s why the minor-leagues have always been essential for developing high-school pitchers.
This Bratt call to the mound as a starter vs. Team USA was a well-thought-out decision that had a strong chance of ending the way it did. Entering Pool C round-robin, Canada understood that it was likely going to lose at least one game, thrown into this tough grouping with the U.S., Mexico, Colombia and Great Britain, especially after the loss of one of its two established major-league starters, Nick Pivetta. For Whitt, the most likely loss was always going to be Game 2 vs. the Americans and, as such, he rolled the dice with the inexperienced, but inarguably, high-ceilinged Bratt. After yielding nine runs in the first inning to Team USA and losing 12-1 in a seven inning mercy, Team Canada was exactly where they thought they would be, at 1-1 with its fate still in its own hands. Remember that in four previous editions of the WBC, Canada never advanced to Round 2. Roll the dice.
Why is the WBC important to baseball?
There exists a marketing cliché used by every North American team sport, a phrase trotted out in order to justify or explain sometimes flawed international experiments. They call it “Growing the Game.” Such has eternally been the logic for pumping up and sticking to an imperfect, but clearly important, World Baseball Classic. Of the seven continents, only Antarctica has never fielded a WBC team.
There have been so many highs and lows in this current ’23 edition, any argument can be made to support a point of view, pro or con, regarding the true value and worth of the WBC. For every game that throbs with energy and excitement, as with Colombia/Mexico or Venezuela/Puerto Rico, there are games eliciting cringey reactions, like Canada/Great Britain, Korea/China or Canada/USA.
But is that wide range of skills and competition among competitors any different than what happens at World Hockey events, sprinkling world-class pucks entertainment against laughable mismatches against Kazakhstan, Italy, Norway or Denmark? Or how about FIBA-sanctioned world events with newcomer basketball countries that tend to get blown out in early round games.
It’s about having kids around the world wanting to play the sport and, as importantly for the leagues, selling merchandise and brand recognition. Basketball has the Summer Olympics and the FIBA Basketball World Cup. The National Football League has its annual slate of regular-season games in Europe and Mexico. Hockey is forever struggling to put its best skate forward, between pushing stars in the Olympics (never a sure thing), pumping up the World Juniors as the sport’s future, or, if all else fails, staging tepid versions of a multi-nation World Cup. For its part, baseball has studied the landscape and placed all its eggs in the basket of the WBC.
History of the W.B.C.: The Summer Olympics was never going to work for MLB, as a world-wide sales vehicle. Baseball had been included for seven Olympiads between 1984-2008, but it never had the ability to shut the game down for three weeks in Aug. and Sept. and send the top major-league stars to prospect for gold. Plus, from the IOC side, the logistics of housing up to 350 athletes and staff for one sport, baseball, was always going to be a nightmare. So, on July 7, 2005, after much debate, after the IOC officially voted baseball out for the 2012 games and beyond, it opened the door for the World Baseball Classic. A quick response was necessary.
It was important for both MLB and the MLBPA (the players’ union) to get together with a major tournament to help re-build world-wide goodwill, emerging from the horrible strike of 1994-95 that had fans cursing both houses, creating snarling adversaries out of owners and players. With the recent steroid hearings on Capitol Hill and the Mitchell Report still fresh in fans’ minds, they were not caring about either side declaring victory. The WBC became a joint venture that showed they could work together for the good of the game.
The task of reaching a positive outcome fell to executive director, Donald Fehr and his assistant Gene Orza representing the union, with Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB President, Paul Beeston on the side of ownership. Beeston’s huge personality was a major factor in the success of the final collaboration between bitter adversaries. Plans quickly came together for a first WBC, announced at the all-star break in 2005 to be played at spring training, 2006. This event has strong meaning for both the players and the MLB head office in New York. As their contribution, all MLB teams are strongly encouraged to allow players to represent their countries, but many young players deep-down feel they need to stay in camp and fight for a job. They feel their organization will penalize them. It seems Canada’s thin line of talented young major-leaguers is constantly plagued by that mindset.
1-Tournament Timing: Sure, early March, in the heart of ramping up spring training preparation, is not ideal timing for anyone, but it’s the best common-ground for MLB teams, for the Asian leagues in Japan, Korea and Taiwan and also for Caribbean nations, who are coming off of a full winter-league season and are in the best game shape of them all. There are not many other options to consider unless it was to become a Winter Olympics event like basketball morphed to the Summer Games.
2-Deep Dive to Improving Pools: In an attempt to demonstrate the growth of the sport around the world, WBC organizers added four extra countries between 2017 and 2023 -- Great Britain, Czech Republic, Panama and Nicaragua. Throw in a struggling China and you have five teams that are a combined 4-15, with one game remaining. Those struggles against the established big-boy baseball countries create a difficult task for those secondary federations to go back to governments and ask for more money to build their programs. There must be some creative solutions.
One idea is to gerrymander the pools to create more equal competition for the also-rans. Current rules feature four pools of five teams, with the top two after four games of a round-robin advancing to the quarter finals, becoming the Elite Eight. How about if the four new qualifiers, plus China for the next WBC, were included in their own Pool. Have those games hosted in Central America, perhaps Panama. All teams in that pool would then become competitive in their round-robin, allowing fans at home to enjoy the telecasts and get fired up for the results. The pool of all qualifiers would only send one team to the quarterfinals, with the other playoff country being the best third-place record (with tiebreakers) from the three other groups, a wild-card.
In the meantime, it becomes more and more obvious with this WBC, despite huge flaws, the concept is working and baseball is making inroads on a global basis.
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