So now baseball commissioner Bud Selig is speaking openly about the possibility of a true world series: a matchup between Major League Baseball’s World Series champions and the champions of Japan.
It is, he told the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers, “a long way off,” and at 78, it will likely fall to Selig’s successor to make it happen. But it’s not hard to see why baseball would move in the direction, given the foothold the World Baseball Classic has in Japan.
The WBC is an ugly duckling or at least a niche oddity on the American sports calendar, but in the Far East, it has once again been a ratings and attendance hit.
(Japan’s TV Asahi saw ratings for a game against Taiwan peak at a 43 share, and the Japan-Brazil game on March 2 hauled in a 35 share, exceeding the highest ratings posted during the 2012 London Summer Olympics. The two highest-rated programs on Japanese TV since 2006 have been WBC games, and ratings in South Korea haven’t been that far behind.)
The WBC needs two things to sell itself in the United States: success against a foe that allows for the type of over-the-top nationalism Americans crave – if only it was North Korea that played baseball – or failing that, the thing that has made the Dream Team concept work in basketball: All the big names and big faces of the game pummelling some poor opponent into submission, with the odd upset thrown in to stoke the fires.
Right now, it’s tough to see either scenario developing.
While the commissioner’s office is in with both feet, for most major-league teams the WBC remains a terrific idea worth supporting – with somebody else’s players.
It can be argued there are four American faces of the game right now: Justin Verlander, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Buster Posey. None of them are playing in the 2013 event – and rest assured it wasn’t because they held steadfast against lobbying from their teams.
After the U.S. beat Canada 9-4 last Sunday, manager Joe Torre took pains to explain his pitching strategy, making clear he ran out a series of right-handed relievers against Canada’s lefty power hitters because those pitchers needed to throw. It is spring training, after all.
In some ways that tells you all you need to know about the WBC: the mission for Torre and team USA at this time is to first and foremost return every player and pitcher to their respective clubs in good health and ready for the rigours of the regular season.
Having those players do so with memories of a WBC title is the optimal circumstance, but failing that, it is good health that will gradually chip away at the institutional skepticism surrounding the event.
And so the WBC will continue this week in all its quirky, pitch-count laden glory. Baseball fans pride themselves on appreciating the game’s quirkiness during the regular season; they’re still learning to do so at a time when the bio-rhythms whisper spring training, a time of serious work but not-so serious exhibition games.
Is there a better time to play the WBC? That’s doubtful.
Playing it after the World Series presents even more issues than playing it in the spring. Pitchers and players won’t shut down for a month and start up again – especially after, say, 200 innings – and those who competed in the World Series wouldn’t likely be up for another two weeks. Besides, who would insure players and pitchers without a contract for the next season? Come to think of it, why would anybody in that position even risk injury?
Having some type of tournament instead of holding an All-Star Game every four years might make sense, but that seems like something of a half-measure.
In the end, the best baseball will get is a bona fide World Series champion playing the Japanese champion or – failing that – the WBC, warts and all.