Is the World Baseball Classic important? Does it matter?
That depends on you, of course -- your country, your culture, your own personal fandom. (Does any game objectively "matter"?) But I would answer that question with another question: who cares?
You don't need to have a large emotional investment in the outcome to enjoy the WBC. It's fun, and it's different, and it's baseball, unusual baseball, almost a month ahead of the season.
A number of baseball writers have pointed out that the U.S. will never field its most competitive team as long as teams pressure their players to stay in camp, where they can stick to their spring routines and hopefully avoid injury. These writers are not wrong. Where I part ways with them is in caring whether the U.S., at this moment in time, fields its most competitive team.
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Baseball fans have, by adulthood, watched thousands of games. So it's always neat to see something rare -- whether good (a triple play, a no-hitter, an inside-the-park home run, a hit off of an intentional walk) or cringe-inducing (whatever happened to the Astros here, or here). And the World Baseball Classic, whatever else it may be, is rare.
The appeal here, though some will feel differently, is not in caring about the outcome of the games. I'm not concerned with whether the U.S. wins the 2013 tournament or whether Japan goes for a three-peat. It would actually be more entertaining if a more unexpected team won, though a truly huge upset like Brazil or Italy is, I realize, too much to hope for. The World Cup brings out my patriotism, but I think America's got a pretty secure handle on the whole baseball thing. If other countries can get to be just as great at it, well, that just means there's more great baseball out there to watch.
What I want is to talk about honkbal, which now features pitching coach Bert Blylevyn. And Taiwanese scouts disguising themselves as umpires to surreptitiously check out their South Korean competition. (Maybe the U.S. doesn't care about the WBC, but these guys sure do). I want to find out as much as I can about baseball in Cuba, a world of talent unto itself, and one we rarely get to glimpse. I want to scope out the Japanese team so that when the next NPB player tries his luck in Major League baseball, I know who he is. I want to watch Barry Larkin manage Team Brazil. I want to see if Australia or Spain can pull off a crazy upset. We have all spring, summer and fall for the usual routine.
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It would be a stretch to call the U.S. team "underdogs" in the World Baseball Classic -- they're not the All-Star team they might have been, but they have a roster packed with major leaguers, serious power in the outfield (Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton), and the pitching of R.A. Dickey and Ryan Vogelsong. They might even be the favorites, though based on the last two contests I think you have to say Japan deserves that title. Of course, the format itself adds massive unpredictability -- anyone can win one game, which is how we get wonders like the Netherlands upsetting the star-packed Dominican Republic, as they did not once but twice in 2009 (the second time behind the pitching of Sir Sidney Ponson). Honkbal!
Although I've been singing the praises of novelty, I'm also looking forward to the least-novel aspect of the WBC: the return to managing of Joe Torre. (At the Winter Meetings in December a reporter asked Joe Torre, in complete seriousness, if his time with the Yankees had "helped prepare" him for managing the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic. He answered in the affirmative with a straight face.) This was a recent headline: "Torre: U.S. Will Be Focused 'Every Single Day' In Classic." No kidding, you might say -- are they going to take it one game at a time? Then you read the article and see that Torre says exactly that.
Are these platitudes predictable and boring? Sure. But to people like me, who spent our formative years as Yankee fans during the Torre era, it feels like coming home.
If Torre is the most familiar of all possible things, there is plenty about the WBC that is new -- to most U.S. fans, anyway. Japan, who won both the 2006 and 2009 contests behind their ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, comes in this year without a single player with Major League experience except for Kazuo Matsui. But it's likely that at least a couple of players from this team will turn up stateside eventually. If you watched the 2009 WBC, you might remember an eye-opening performance in the clinching game by some guy named Yu Darvish.
There's already a certain amount of information available on Japanese players, for those who want to find it; for Cuban players, it's much harder to come by. A chance to see some of their best players is fascinating, though they have to go to such drastic lengths if they ever want to play in America that it's hard to watch them lightheartedly. Both Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman and A's slugger Yoenis Cespedes played for Cuba in the 2009 tournament before defecting. For most of the players on the Cuban team, though, this could be one of only a few chances we'll get.
Meanwhile, I've been fascinated by Taiwan's baseball culture since I visited at the height of Chien-Ming Wang mania in 2007. This is a country that is incredibly passionate about baseball, going to great lengths to succeed in the Little League World Series, rallying around its players who make it to the United States and following their every move.
Taiwan has a professional league, but it currently has only four teams: The Brother Elephants, the Lamigo Monkeys, the EDA Rhinos (reportedly the future team of one Manny Ramirez), and Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. Attendance is down, partly because of the popularity of American baseball, and partly because of a series of alarming gambling scandals in the late 90s. (Pete Rose is clean enough to be Commissioner, in comparison: players were kidnapped and pressured to throw games, a coach was stabbed, and the China-Times Eagles lost so many players to suspension or indictment that they had to borrow other teams' personnel to finish the season).
If you're someone who likes to learn about this sort of thing, the next few weeks will be a lot of fun. Let's let Joe Torre worry about the winning, and focus on all the players and cultures and matchups that we have so few chances to experience.
Did you know there's a team in the Netherlands' Honkbal Hoofdklasse called the Hoofddorp Pioniers?