x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

World Baseball Classic suffering from a classic case of contradiction

With timing and injury risks working against it, the World Baseball Classic fights for global recognition.

Fans cheer on Taiwan before their game against the Netherlands last week.
Fans cheer on Taiwan before their game against the Netherlands last week.

The language is baseball, but be sure to include a multilingual translator on your line-up card. Everything from "home run" to "bullpen" might be expressed differently in Chinese or Portuguese or Korean or Dutch than it is in English or Japanese or Spanish or Italian.

It is the third World Baseball Classic (WBC), an ambitious collection of many things, yet not one thing that seems to define it.

It is a World Cup kind of event that, in the end, will be decided in the United States, a country that has never really embraced football. Flags, national anthems and a gold medal give it an Olympic atmosphere, yet without some of the stars who are baseball's equivalent of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

So what in the world is it?

When introduced by Major League Baseball (MLB) in 2006, the idea was marketed as a way to transform the sport into a global commodity, as popular in Beijing and Rio de Janeiro as it is in New York and Tokyo.

Tony LaRussa, a special consultant to Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner, said the aim is "to globalise the game".

Going global, however, is a bit like that old coaching cliche: it is one hemisphere at a time. Japan, Cuba, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands emerged this week from pool play in Japan and Taiwan. They moved on to the second round, which began yesterday in Tokyo.

Pool play involving the US, Mexico, Canada and Italy opened on Thursday in Arizona. It also opened in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain. The top two teams from Arizona and Puerto Rico advance to the second round next week at Marlins Park in Miami.

The semi-finals and championship game are set for March 17-19 in San Francisco, which is home to the 2012 World Series champion Giants.

MLB looks at the globe and sees progress for the WBC. Worldwide? Not exactly. In most of Asia and Africa, baseball still looks like a puzzling variant of cricket. Indeed, crickets thrives where baseball does not, and vice versa.

Yet, it is now is being played in countries that, not long ago, knew Babe Ruth only as the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar. From the 2009 Classic to the qualifying rounds late last year for the 2013 tournament, the field expanded from 16 to 28 nations, including the Czech Republic and Thailand.

A nagging question remains about that part of the globe where baseball started and where - many believe - the WBC ultimately will succeed or fail. Response is tepid in the US, where March baseball means spring training, or the national college basketball play-offs, not some global baseball tournament in only its third iteration.

"We understand that this isn't a good time," said Joe Torre, the former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers manager, who has stepped away from his job in the commissioner's office to manage Team USA. "But it is the only time we can do this."

That timing has created its own complications. Baseball, like any other sport fighting for market share, needs its stars. But do they train for the club that pays them or do they leave camp to play for their country?

"I think it's just different for everybody and for different reasons," said Adrian Gonzalez, Mexico's captain and a first baseman acquired by the Dodgers in a multi-player deal with Boston last year. "Some guys are coming off injuries. Some guys are fighting for their jobs. Some guys have been around for a while and have already proven themselves. Some haven't. All of the reasons are legit.

"Still, it's an honour to get the chance. It means a lot, I think, to play for your country. In Mexico or anywhere else in Latin America, it's obviously not the same as World Cup. But soccer is different. All you've got to do is say, 'Let's play soccer'. Somebody will find a ball and off you go.

In baseball, you need a bat, ball, gloves. More people play soccer and watch soccer. Sure, it's absolutely bigger than baseball. But the WBC is still up there. It's a big, big thing in Mexico."

For players, the biggest gamble is an injury that could sideline them for his MLB team's season. The New York Yankees infielder Mark Teixeira worked with the US team in Arizona on Monday. The next day, he withdrew because of a wrist strain. The Cleveland Indians pitcher Chris Perez, an All-Star, left the team because of a shoulder strain sustained during the second week of Cleveland's camp.

Perez believed that he could have pitched in the Classic. "It's a huge disappointment," he said, but the risk was too big. "In my career, selection to the American team is the biggest honour I've had, to date. At the same time, my job is with the Indians. It would be selfish of me to pitch in the WBC. It's disappointing, but it would have been a lot worse if I had pitched and then been out for three or four months."

Timing and the injury risk are a combination that does not bode well for the WBC's future, said Terry Francona, the Cleveland manager. "One thing I worry about is when they ratchet up the competition. … You're amped up, but it's a little early for that. I love the idea of the World Baseball Classic. I would love to see all of the best players play for their country. But there's no way to make it work. It's a shame."

In an effort to allay the managers' concerns, spring training was extended in 2013.

Camps opened 10 days earlier than usual. A pitch-count rule was written. In the first round of the WBC, pitchers are limited to 65 pitches. In the second round, the limit is 80. In the semi-finals, it is 95.

Torre said: "My commitment to the general managers and managers is that their players will come back to them in better shape than they were. That's my pledge."

But extended spring training and rules written to limit risk did not eliminate concerns, even for stars interested in the WBC.

Detroit's Justin Verlander, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, wanted to play for Team USA. Torre wanted him on the roster. But Verlander worked 270 innings last season. He pitched in the World Series, which ended in late October. It was too much. He said no.

"I understand," Torre said. "For a lot of guys, their mind says 'yes' but their bodies won't let them."

In some cases, their team asked them not to. Clayton Kershaw, a Cy Young Award winner for the Dodgers, was troubled by pain in his right hip last season. Kershaw said the Dodgers encouraged him to say no.

"It's a huge honour to get to do that," said Kershaw, who some speculate might get a deal worth US$200 million (Dh734.6m) in a new contract. "I would have loved to. But I think I owed it to the team to show I was healthy. I know they didn't feel great about me going. Hopefully, in four years I'll get the honour to do it again. But I'll definitely have regrets watching it."

How significant, then, is a tournament without many of a country's best players?

American stars are not the only ones staying away. Japan, the WBC champion in 2006 and 2009, will be without the hitting star Ichiro Suzuki and the pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, both of the Yankees.

Suzuki was the hero of Japan's 2009 WBC title with a game-winning hit in a 5-3 victory over South Korea. The Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers also said no.

One could make an all-star team of players who have opted out of the WBC, unthinkable for an event like football's World Cup. The elite pitcher Felix Hernandez is not playing for Venezuela.

David Ortiz, Boston slugger, did not join the Dominican Republic team.

The Los Angeles Angels star Albert Pujols also said no thanks to the Dominican Republic. According to MLB, the WBC rosters include 45 players who have been MLB All-Stars. They include the Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera, a Detroit infielder, and the American pitcher RA Dickey.

Stars not in the Classic, in part because of the injury risk, leave a question about those who are: how hard will they play? Motivation is there for the US, which lost to Japan in the 2009 semi-finals.

"We're all excited," said Adam Jones, a Baltimore outfielder. "Part of the thing that struck me was that we could be the first US team to win it. That's driving us. Walk into clubhouse now and you'll see the unselfishness. We're a band of brothers."

The Americans are also a target for international teams and their fans. In east Asia, interest in the WBC is high enough that it produced an cloak-and-dagger story.

South Korea was preparing for a practice game in Taiwan and four student umpires were assigned to work it.

However, according to reports in the Korean media, the students were Chinese Taipei scouts, spies posing as umpires.

"Countries that have baseball, but don't have the major leagues, have a passion" for the WBC," Torre said. "When they play us, they put on their Sunday best.

"Trust me, when this tournament gets going, it will be a post-season, Game 7-like atmosphere. As far as the interest goes, it's up to us to get fans as engaged as they can. We do that by going as far as we can."