Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The World Baseball Exhibition

The inaugural World Baseball Classic is underway, and with some close contests and a huge upset today, has proven to be rather entertaining. Despite this, I have trouble considering any part of this tournament to be "classic". For a tournament than is claiming to establish one country as a world champion, it is actually establishing precious little. All we know so far is that Adam Stern is a pretty kickass player, and that Latin Americans love their baseball.

While the games themselves are competitive, and a champion will be crowned, the tournament itself is no more than an exhibition.

To illustrate my point, let's draw a comparison between the World Baseball Classic, and the recent Olympic Hockey Tournament.

I enjoyed the hockey tournament immensely. The players worked hard, it was largely well-played, and many of the games were exciting. The Gold Medal game was a fantatic game, capped by a furious final two minutes with the Fins pressing and the Swedes holding on for dear life. It was the most exciting finish to a championship hockey game that I remember, and those two minutes, and the subsequent Swedish celebration and exasperated looks on the faces of the Fins produced one of those "this is what's right about sports" moments.

When all was said and done, you could say that, while some teams were sidetracked by injuries, they all nonetheless put their best effort forward. Given that, it is fair to claim that (until the next World Cup or Olympic tournament) that the Swedes have the best hockey team in the world.

Now, imagine for a second that the Olympic Tournament had to conform to the following rules:

• There was a limit to how many players from each NHL club could participate
• NHL teams could refuse to allow their players to participate
• In the Round Robin, if a goalie plays more than 40 minutes in a game, he is not allowed to play the next day.
• In the Round Robin, forwards are limited to 20 minutes of ice time a game, and defenseman are limited to 25 minutes of ice time a game.
• In the Medal Round, forwards are limited to 22 minutes of ice time a game, and defenseman are limited to 28 minutes of ice time a game.

Now, what you're dealing with is a tournament with many of the best players in the world, but definitely not all of the best. You also have a tournament where players are prohibited from playing to their potential, and teams cannot field an optimal lineup at all times.

Given all of this, would you say that whoever emerged victorious had a legitimate claim as the best hockey nation in the world? No, you wouldn't. Yet this is what the World Baseball Classic is trying to tell us. Under controlled, exhibition-like conditions, we will determine the best national baseball club in the world. Nice try Bud, but I'm not biting.

I see a lot of positive things about the WBC. It's a fun way to showcase some of the best players in the world. It's a good way to show off the increasing international flair of the game, and to help boost its appeal around the world. I'm fine with that, just don't expect me to treat it as anything more serious than that. In this sense, it's a lot like the Annual Hockey World Championships that are held every April and May. The tournament does not host the best players in the world, it just decides which country in any given year can put together the best team out of its players who's clubs miss the playoffs, and aren't too banged up to play another two weeks of hockey. Whoever wins the World Championship this May will not have any legitimate claim as the best in the world, nor should they.

So given what the tournament is, forgive me if I refer to it from here on in as the World Baseball Exhibition. I feel like this is a much more apt description of what the tournament is. I would rather enjoy it for what it is than imagine it to be something that it's not.

With that being said, I have a few more comments to add:

• I really would like to see a true World Cup of Baseball, without pitch limitations, or any other restrictions on a country's ability to field the best team they can. The only way I can see this happening, however, is if the Americans do so poorly that they need another tournament to prove themselves. I can see the MLB owners agreeing to a true competition to salvage their pride, but under no other circumstances. much as I like the Americans, I have to root for them to lose. Badly. Losing to Canada for the first time since the War of 1812 is a good start, but a humiliating loss next round to either the Japanese or the Cubans would really get the ball rolling. Will it happen? I don't know. But as long as they're starting guys like Matt Holliday, there's definite hope.

• Do any of our readers remember when the World Junior Baseball Championships were in Edmonton back in the summer of 2000? I managed to catch about 8 games (and kept score at many of them). It was great baseball; I'm curious if any of our other readers or contributors were there?

• I see the reason why they included teams from countries like the Netherlands, Italy, and South Africa, but is having your team blown out 3 games in a row really the way to boost fan interest in a country?

• My predictions: 1st Place: Dominic Republic; 2nd Place: Japan; 3rd Place: Cuba; 4th Place: Korea

Let the (exhibition) games begin! I can't say no to baseball, so I'll definitely be watching right up until the end.


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