Tuesday, February 28, 2006

World Baseball Classic

It seems from reading various baseball sites and blogs that I am part of a minority of people who is actually looking forward to the World Baseball Classic, and trying to figure out where to fit in sleep between trying to watch Korea/Taiwan and Japan/Red China. Yes, a lot of marquee players are not playing. Yes, the format of single elimination playoffs is far from ideal for baseball. Yes, the players are away from their training camps. I got the point. Those things diminish the tournament a little bit, I admit, but it’s still a heckuva lot better to watch glorified exhibition games then actual exhibition games in the first weeks of March. And I still believe that there is a chance that the event will be far more relevant then glorified exhibition games.

Before I get to the baseball aspect, I am going to touch briefly on the political aspects, which I am loathe to do, simply because when you write about politics you will probably have fifty percent of your audience disagree with you, and maybe a quarter of them get infuriated at you. Luckily for me, I don’t have much of an audience to alienate.

Some people seem to be opposed to the WBC because it fosters nationalism or jingoism or what have you, and we should all move past those petty little feelings and view ourselves as citizens of the world or something. Of course, this kind of attitude would also cast disdain on the Olympics, the World Cup, and any number of other international sporting events. I don’t think much of the Olympics, but that is partly because they try to foster an image of the pureness of competition and have Yoko Ono reading peace poems during the opening ceremonies, and mostly because you can’t slap USA on a curler’s shirt and make me care anymore about it then two old men in panama hats playing shuffleboard on a cruise ship in the middle of Nassau. I disdain the World Cup because soccer is the most boring sport known to man. It’s not because I have a problem with “our country” vs. “their country”.

Of course, the element of this that is a little ugly is when the allegations about people’s heritage and patriotism start flying. Enter baseball’s most annoying manager, Ozzie Guillen, and his slams on Nomar and A-Rod. First of all, I wonder what somebody who every time their interviewed during the World Series feels the need to stick his fist up and say “Venezuela” as if he’s practicing for the rise of Hugo Chavez’ worker’s paradise cares about the Dominican Republic and Mexico. It would be one thing if a Dominican questioned ARod, who was after all born and raised in Miami, about his decision, but for a Venezuelan to take it another step up from a patriotism issue by saying “He was kissing Latino people’s asses” is absurd. My dictionary defines Latino as “A person of Hispanic, especially Latin-American, descent, often one living in the United States”. I think that describes Alex Rodriguez to a tee, Ozzie. I guess if I ever have a hard time choosing between Cleveland and Cincinnati, which both have large white populations, Ozzie will accuse me of kissing white people’s asses.

And then there’s the Cuba issue--they're in, the State Department will not allow them to play, now they will, yaddayadda. Now I’m as anti-communist as anybody (probably more so then most--the favorite quotation I gave for my high school yearbook was “Better dead then red”), but I think that the best way to spread capitalism is to practice it, and go ahead and trade with the Cubans even if they don’t want to reciprocate. Now I do understand why those who have fled Castro have a problem with this sort of position, and that is why it is such a political hot potato in the US, whereas half of the stuff you own was made in China and nobody gives a flip. But the State Department should not have done that, and flip-flopping on it just made them look weak and gave Castro a propaganda victory.

That does not mean, though, that Major League Baseball should let them play. Unfortunately, it is co-sponsored by the International Baseball Federation, and they would probably not go along with it if Cuba was banned. So the ideal solution is again complicated by political realities. My reason for wanting Cuba banned is because of guys like Jose Contreras, and El Duque, and Yuniesky Betancourt. These are men without a country in the WBC. And I consider them all to be courageous and admirable, and it infuriates me that they are not allowed to play for their country because they didn’t enjoy living under a communist thug. I am very sympathetic to Ariel Prieto’s position: “I'm angry now that I can't play in the tournament. I'm really ticked off. "Cuba has no place in that tournament because it has always criticized professional baseball. If Fidel Castro doesn't want professional baseball, that's his problem. Those of us that have deserted because of political reasons could have come up with a team for the World Classic. The United States and MLB are at fault.”

The only thing I disagree with him about is that the “U.S.” is at fault. But it is a shame that he and his countrymen cannot play. What should have been done is to allow them to enter a “Free Cuba” team in the tournament, and let the Cuban government decide if they want to share the field with “traitors”. They should have established a game of chicken with Fidel Castro, not Ariel Prieto and Osvaldo Fernandez (I don’t think he’s still around. But I think Osvaldo is a great name).

Finally, Jose Contreras had some great thoughts along similar lines that are really worth reading:

Politics over, back to baseball. Some have criticized the inclusion of lesser nations like Red China, South Africa, and Italy, but including these countries, particularly South Africa and Italy, is a necessary sop to the notion of a “true” world championship. Red China is a little shakier on those grounds because Asia will still be represented by its three true baseball-playing countries regardless. But China is a huge untapped market and baseball would be silly to not pursue it, and hopefully the WBC will cause greater exposure for the game in Italy and other such places.

As for the tournament itself, it is difficult to predict winners and the like because the participating players may change eighteen times in the next week and a half and who knows how rusty they will be, how the pitch limits will affect the game, etc. And of course the sample size of a three game round robin pool leading up to single-elimination playoffs is next to nothing.

But looking broadly at the groups, you have to like Japan and either Korea or Taiwan, probably Korea, to come out of the Asian group. Group B features Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and the US, and the US is the obvious favorite here, with Canada probably second. Mexico could make it interesting though, and South Africa…I pity them. Group C of Cuba, Holland, Panama, and Puerto Rico is an interesting one. I just cannot envision Cuba as being better then the national teams of the DR, Venezuela, and the US. The success of their defectors in the majors does not point to that. Heck, it’s only one game, but they lost to the Dutch at the last Olympics, and that Dutch team did not include any of their major leaguers (not that they have a lot of them, but there is a Mr. Jones who plays center who I hear is a ballplayer). I would not be surprised to see Cuba really struggle, although I would also not be surprised if they won any of these matchups. But I’m going to go ahead and consider PR and Panama the favorites in that one. Then Group D, which features Italy, Australia, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. Whoever was balancing these groups didn’t think that one through it looks like--Venezuela and DR could very well be the #2 and #3 favorites in the tournament. If that pools games are going to be played on neutral turf in Orlando anyway, why not send Venezuela to Puerto Rico and bring Cuba to Orlando? Oh yeah, that’s right, the State Department. Never mind, I expected logic from MLB AND government. Big mistake.

So you have Korea, Japan, US, Canada, DR, PR, Panama, and Venezuela. Now without looking at the actual rosters, you have to like the red, white, and blue there. But then you look at the US roster, and you see that the rotation is Clemens, Sabathia, Willis, and Peavy? Not exactly Johnson and Halladay and Carpenter and Oswalt and Smoltz. Now Peavy and Willis are arguably as good as those guys, but they don’t have the same star power and CC Sabathia, Chief Wahoo love him, is not in that class. However, a bullpen that features Street, Wagner, Nathan, Lidge, and Cordero is more in line with expectations. Varitek catching…Lee at first…Utley or Young at second…Jeter at short…Rodriguez at third…sounds great. Outfielders: Damon, Francouer, Griffey, Wells, Winn, Matt Holliday!!? Did anybody call Adam Dunn? How about Grady Sizemore? Brian Giles? Pat Burrell? Carl Crawford would look good compared to Matt Holliday. I cannot wrap my head around the idea that you are going to make a US National Baseball team and put Matt Holliday on it.

Anyway, the US pitching is probably still the best, and the US should probably be the favorite. But if it comes down to Johan Santana against anybody, I think I might bet with the Venezuelans. Their infield is not spectacular, but Abreu, Cabrera, and Ordonez make that US outfield look like a bunch of rookies. Wait, Jeff Francouer was a rookie. The Dominican offense is scary too, but not quite as much now that Manny Ramirez has pulled out, and their pitching depth doesn’t compare. It really is amazing I guess that I could list all of those guys who were left off the US staff, and it still looks like the best in the tournament.

The wildcards will be Japan and Cuba, just because you can’t really tell how these guys will do against major leaguers. Based on the performances of Japanese and Cuban players in the majors, I have a great deal more respect for Japan’s chances. In the end though, I’d say the playoff format makes it a crapshoot between the US, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, in that order, with respect to Puerto Rico. And what exactly is on ESPN on Friday night that is so friggin’ important that they have to show Korea/Taiwan on tape delay?

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