They’re playing baseball in Taiwan and Panama this weekend. The games in those far-away lands won’t make anyone forget the forgettable World Series sweep by San Francisco of Detroit, but it’s baseball and it’s the forerunner to the third World Baseball Classic, which will be played next March.
I don’t know if the Classic has caught on, but I like it. Long before the WBC as created in 2006, I liked the idea of major leaguers playing for their native countries in a world-wide tournament and finding out who had the best team.
The WBC hasn’t achieved the status of soccer’s World Cup, but maybe someday it will be there. For that to happen, baseball has to become bigger in European countries and fans in the United States have to buy into the idea of the Classic.
No problem in Latin American countries, where baseball is as popular as it was when the sport held a stranglehold on sports fans in this country, before the National Football League emerged from its minor league status in the 1960s, becoming a major television event offering fans the opportunity to bet on a Sunday afternoon game with a stake in the outcome.
No problem in the Far East either, at least not in Japan, whose team won the first two Classics, and Korea, whose team played impressively, losing to Japan in the 2006 semifinals and the 2009 final. Taiwan, Thailand, China and New Zealand have a long way to go to catch up and generate interest among prospective fans.
In terms of interest in countries that are not viewed as baseball lands, Israel has an advantage over many countries. The Israeli population is filled with Americans, many of whom packed their love for baseball with the rest of their belongings when they made aliya, or emigrated. Israel’s problem is it has no baseball facility with seats.
The Israeli team, one of 16 teams playing in four separate tournaments to determine the last four teams for the 16-team event in March, was the victim of bad timing. The Israelis were placed in a September qualifying round and lost to Spain in a 10-inning final.
It was Israel’s only loss on its three-game schedule, and one of its wins came against Spain two days earlier. However, under the tournament format, Israel, unlike Spain, didn’t get a chance to have a second loss. But that wasn’t the timing problem I mentioned.
Had Israel’s qualifying round been played in November instead of September, its team could have been much stronger and Spain most likely would not have had been in the same ball park.
All international teams have the right to use non-citizen players whose heritage is linked to the country. That’s why Johnny Damon was able to play for Thailand last week; his mother is Thai.
Israel can use players who are Jewish, no matter where they were born. But Shawn Green, a retired major leaguer, was the only prominent Jew who played for Israel. Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Ike Davis, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Marquis and Scott Feldman, among others, were otherwise occupied, playing for the major league teams that pay them.
Canada, with 17 native sons on major league rosters, was the only other September-qualifying team that experienced the same absence of major league players. Canada, however, also has about 130 players in the minor leagues.
Why was Israel placed in the September qualifier instead of November?
“We initially considered playing the Jupiter qualifier in November,” said Michael Weiner, head of the Players Association, a partner with Major League Baseball in the WBC. “We decided to move those games to September in part because of a desire to balance the schedule – and allow for two qualifiers in September and two in November.
“Before making the change, we consulted with each federation. It’s fair to say they all welcomed the move.”
Paul Archey, senior vice president for international business operations for MLB, explained that they wanted to expand the WBC field from 16 to 28 teams to have greater impact globally. However, 28 teams wouldn’t fit into the time that was available in March.
“In order to have the most impact,” he said, “we wanted to play in other markets, which we were able to do in Panama and Taiwan.” Weather, in those cases, was an influencing factor. So, Archey added, were past results. “We wanted teams that played in the last two WBC’s in different pools. They had an opportunity to win. It didn’t happen for them.”
And finally, “No one else in the pool has major leaguers.” The other teams, besides Israel and Spain, were France and South Africa.
Major leaguers do not guarantee success in the Classic. Just last week Brazil, with infielder Yan Gomes its only major league player and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin as its manager, edged Panama, 3-2, despite a Panamanian roster loaded with Carlos Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Ruben Tejada, Manny Corpas and Manny Acosta.
Brazil, considered the weakest team in its group, also knocked off Columbia, which was powered by infielders Edgar Renteria and Donovan Solano.
Renteria, who drove in the winning run for the Marlins in the 1997 World Series, had been retired for a year when he decided to play for Columbia. Some players, though, prefer to pass on the WBC.
A few weeks ago two Japanese pitchers, Yu Darvish of Texas and Hishashi Iwakuma of Seattle, said they would forego the Classic so they could focus of getting ready for the season. David Ortiz, Boston’s designated hitter, said he was considering skipping the tournament.
“It’s never going to be 100 percent,” Archey commented, “but we’ve had strong interest from players. I’m very optimistic about the players’ participation. The initial interest list is extremely positive.”
Weiner confirmed Archey’s perception. “Participation for players is optional,” Weiner said. “Despite the few who have withdrawn themselves from consideration, hundreds of major leaguers have indicated a desire to take the field for their respective nations.”
Might the novelty have worn off for the players that they don’t want to disrupt their spring regimen?
“No, not at all,” Weiner said. “In fact, players are telling us they are extremely excited about representing their countries, competing against the world’s best, and doing their part to grow the event and the game.
“They also know the potential the WBC holds in terms of creating opportunities after their careers have ended. For example, the WBC can open doors for players to manage and coach in the U.S. and overseas. In addition, players know the WBC gives them a tremendous chance to help spread the game to their family’s home country, like Johnny Damon is doing in Thailand.”
A criticism has arisen after each of the first two Classics that they create injuries. Weiner and Archey reject that charge, and I agree with them. More players incurred injuries in spring training camps last year than in connection with the WBC.
“Statistics will show you have a better chance of getting injured in spring training than playing in the Classic,” Archey said. “We’ve had very few injuries. You can count them on one hand.”
“Players,” Weiner said, “understand they can be injured while playing, whether that’s during spring training, the regular season or the WBC. Injuries are part of the game. But they know we have done all we can, including introduction of pitch counts, to provide the safest environment possible for them.”
Some critics have said spring training is a bad time for the tournament, that having it after the season would be better. There is a major problem with that idea. The WBC couldn’t begin until after the World Series, and that means most players would have a month off. They would have to stay in playing shape for that time or risk injury.
Furthermore, by November, fans might be ready for a rest and ignore the WBC. Officials on both sides like the way the Classic has developed.
“We introduced a qualifying round this year,” Weiner said. “It allowed 12 nations/territories to participate in the tournament – none of which participated in the event in years past. Unfortunately for some countries, we had more requests to participate than we were able to accommodate.
“But we see that in many ways as good news. It means there continues to be interest in this event throughout the world – in baseball rich countries as well as in countries where baseball as a sport is not quite as mature. In particular, we’ve seen strong interest from the European community, which is very exciting.”
SELIG DELIBERATING LORIA TRADE
The mammoth trade between the Marlins and the Blue Jays, in which the Marlins shed more than $165 million from their payroll liabilities, was officially completed Friday and went to Commissioner Bud Selig for his approval late that day. There was no indication how long Selig would take to approve it, reject it or order it altered.
“He is deliberating,” said an official. “He has concerns and will discuss them with the Marlins as he deliberates.”
It would be uncharacteristic of Selig to block the trade or have it altered in any way, but this isn’t the first time Loria has acted outrageously and even Selig could be tired of the owner’s payroll-slashing game.
It’s not likely that Loria would challenge a negative ruling. In 1976, Charlie Finley, the Oakland Athletics’ owner, sued Commissioner Bowie Kuhn over his refusal to allow Finley to tell Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million, but Kuhn won when the judge upheld his authority under “the best interest of baseball” provision.
Meanwhile, if the Florida fans are angry and disgusted with Loria’s chicanery, how should Jose Reyes feel? Loria lured the shortstop to Florida last winter with a 6-year contract worth $106 million. An extra incentive was that Florida has no state income tax.
A tax accounting firm, EisnerAmper, has figured out that the trade could cost Reyes nearly $8 million extra in income tax over the remaining five years of his contract. The additional tax is based on what Reyes would have paid if he had switched his residency from New York State to Florida and stayed with the Marlins.
GAGNE AND HGH
When Jose Canseco talked and wrote a few years ago about the use of steroids in baseball, he created a stir. However, Eric Gagne, the former relief pitcher, is the subject of a book that details his and his teammates’ use of performance-enhancing drugs, and it has created hardly a peep.
Maybe that’s because Gagne isn’t the oversized character Canseco made himself out to be, or maybe it’s because the book about Gagne is in French.
Unlike Canseco, Gagne, one of the most successful closers and a Cy Young award winner in 2003, did not write the book. It is a biography, “Game Over: The Story of Eric Gagne.”
In the book Gagne admits to using human growth hormone for three years near the end of his career. He also says that 80 percent of his Dodgers teammates used performance-enhancing drugs.
“I was intimately aware of the clubhouse in which I lived,” Gagne is quoted as saying in the book. “I would say that 80 percent of the Dodgers players were consuming them.”
Gagne, 36 years old, retired after the 2008 season. He won the National League Cy Young award in 2003, gaining 55 saves in 55 opportunities and recording a 1.20 earned run average.
Taken at his word about his use of HGH, the 2003 season was presumably not one of the years he used it.
Meanwhile, we’re getting closer to the moment of truth for Mike Piazza. His name, for the first time, will be on the Hall of Fame ballot voters will soon receive, and his book is supposed to be out in February.
The book has been kept hush-hush, the better for voters not to know if he admits in the book to using steroids use.
A bad scenario for the voters: they elect him, then learn from the book that he used steroids.
A bad scenario for Piazza: he is not elected on the first ballot, and his admission in print bars him from ever gaining election.
A good scenario for voters: enough vote for him to keep him eligible for future ballots until the book is published and we see what he says about steroids.
A good scenario for Piazza: he finds a way to prove he never used steroids, and the tell-tale acne that covered his back and disappeared only when baseball began testing for steroids was just a delayed case of teen-age acne.