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Wednesday, June 8, 2005
Playing World Baseball Classic in spring or fall makes no sense at all
Do you ever come up with an idea that you think is really great?
Something that is going to be cutting edge and change your life forever?
Then after some reflection, for whatever reason, you decide, well, maybe it isn't such a good idea after all?
That's the feeling I'm beginning to get about the World Baseball Classic -- the brainchild of Major League Baseball -- which is hoping to field teams from 16 countries for its inaugural tournament in March 2006.
On the surface it sounds like something exciting and innovative.
Bring baseball's biggest stars, in the uniforms of their home countries, into a single event to showcase the game as it has never been before.
All the talk over the years of having a "true" world champion could be laid to rest right on the diamond before sellout crowds and television audiences around the world.
Well, I'm just not sure in the long term it's going to fly.
A combination of bad timing, fiscal concerns, politics and good old hardheadedness, to begin with.
"It's a dream tournament," MLB Japan managing director Jim Small said in a telephone interview last week. "It's what the fans want to see."
My hat is off to the MLB for attempting to put together an event of this scale, but I wonder if they will be able to pull it off for an extended period of time.
The key issue I have with the WBC is the scheduling of the tournament for March, prior to the start of the pro seasons in many countries.
To give it credibility, the event should be held in the summer and the countries involved should shut down their domestic seasons for two weeks.
If this is going to be as good a show as promised, the MLB and other leagues can take a couple of weeks off for it to be played.
Holding it before the start of the season will disrupt team training camps around the globe and be counterproductive.
It will bring a new sport to the club vs. country issue that is continually plaguing soccer.
Also, how many top stars -- especially those in the final year of their contracts -- are going to risk injury heading into their regular seasons to participate in the WBC?
Holding the competition after the season in November isn't feasible, either.
Players are going to be banged up by injuries and fatigued from the long grind of the season and playoffs in their respective countries.
It seems quite logical that, to gain maximum exposure, the WBC should be staged in the summer when just about every other major sport is not playing.
If you contest it in July, the NFL, NBA, NHL and the majority of soccer leagues around the world are taking a break. It would seem the perfect scenario.
Turn the focus of fans to this novel idea and let them judge for themselves if it lives up to the advance billing.
If the NHL can shut down its season for two weeks -- as it did in 1998 and 2002 -- so its players can participate in the Winter Olympics, why can't baseball do the same for the WBC?
"Fans don't want to go two weeks without seeing baseball," Small stated. "The NHL is a very different model. Their teams only play a couple of days a week. We play seven days a week. You are going to lose a lot more games in Major League Baseball than you do in the NHL."
It is clear that the wishes of the MLB players had a significant impact on the decision to have the WBC in the spring.
"We have an obligation to the MLB players, who want it in March," Small stated. "Sixty to 70 percent will be from major league teams."
The Japanese players wanted the tournament played in November, but that was out of the question, according to Small.
"The feelings of the 250 MLB players weighed more than the 20 NPB players who will participate."
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman likes the proposal for the WBC.
"I think it is great idea. I would like to see more worldwide tournaments to increase worldwide relations as well as continue to evaluate competition from all the countries involved."
However, Hillman thinks the timing for the event is not right.
"I agree that it would probably be more timely around mid-summer, or find a way to do it after the respective seasons are complete," says Hillman. "Of course, if you wait until after the seasons finish, you run into November."
In addition to the proposed schedule of the WBC, there are a host of other issues that could dampen interest.
The WBC is going to be invitational, opening up the door for criticism from those nations who will be bypassed when the participants are selected.
Ideally, an event like this should be reached through qualification. It is much cleaner that way. You either play your way in or out of contention.
"This in an invitational tournament," Small said. "This is not the FIFA World Cup. We are not FIFA. We are one professional league. That's the way it is. That's the way it was set up from the beginning."
Nippon Pro Baseball, after initially agreeing to participate in the WBC, is now wavering and may not take part. There have been complaints from the Japanese that the MLB and Major League Baseball Players' Association have too much control over the event.
The MLB says that the NPB shook hands on a deal last year and said it would send a team to the WBC, but, out of the blue last month, began complaining about several issues, including the timing and revenue distribution.
"To say this is a money grab for the MLB is absolutely erroneous," says Small. "Nobody is guaranteed any money in this event. All the money made around the world goes into one pot and all of the expenses are taking out of that pot. Whatever is left, the profit is split up. This is the most equitable way to do it.
"The MLB and MLBPA are entitled to the largest percentage of the net profit. If you take the percentage we are getting and divide it by 30, it is the exact same net number as the NPB percentage divided by 12.
"What that means is that the New York Yankees make the exact same amount per share as the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and the Yankees have all of the risk."
The NPB, which has far less sway over its teams than the MLB, likely took this idea to the clubs and was rebuffed.
How else to explain their sudden change of heart?
If this is the case, the NPB should have discussed this with its teams prior to agreeing to take part, not afterward.
One high-ranking Japanese team official told me, "This whole thing smacks of imperialism on the part of the MLB. Why didn't they build a consensus on this before announcing their plans?"
The MLB originally wanted to unveil the details of the WBC at the All-Star Game in Detroit, in July, but was forced to go public sooner after taking a beating in the Japanese press when word leaked out that the NPB was unhappy with the setup of the WBC.
What about the fact that baseball faces the very real possibility of being voted out of the Olympics at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Singapore in July?
Will creation of the WBC hasten the departure of baseball from the Olympics?
"I don't think the idea of a World Baseball Classic hurts the opportunity to keep baseball in the Olympics," states Small. "You could look at it the other way around, it helps it, by keeping baseball at the forefront and showing that it is a global sport. There are 110 baseball-playing countries in the world.
"When you look past the politics of the IOC, and you compare baseball to race-walking or the modern pentathlon, or all of these other sports that are in the Olympics, that are played on a very narrow basis, by a limited number of people, baseball is exemplary in terms of the ideals of the Olympics.
"I think there is enough support to keep baseball in the Olympics that this tournament won't impact it negatively."
The IOC is a heavily pro-European institution and one that has been looking to dump baseball -- which it considers a minor sport -- out of the Games for awhile now.
None other than IOC President Jacques Rogge proposed the elimination of baseball back in 2002.
Rogge has softened his tone recently, citing progress by the MLB with drug testing as a positive sign, but that is far from a ringing endorsement.
All of the sports in the Summer Games will be voted on next month, and those that don't receive a majority in favor of retention, will be dropped.
Let's face it, the Summer Olympic Games are the biggest sporting stage there is, and the MLB should have gotten with the program, took a break in its season and made its best players available to participate long ago.
If baseball is taken off the Olympic program, then there would be no excuse not to hold the WBC in the summer. It would be even more logical.
I asked Small if playing the final outside of the U.S., in Tokyo for example, might have been a way to offer an enticement to the other countries participating and help eliminate the image that the MLB was doing whatever it wanted with the WBC.
"Playing the final outside the U.S. is not an option. We only have two weeks to get this tournament done. With logistics and travel, to fly four teams that had been playing in the U.S. all the way to Japan to play a final is too difficult."
With so many obstacles to overcome, the MLB is facing major challenges in trying to stage and market the WBC in the coming months.
There is an old saying in sports: An event will stand or fall on its own merits.
I'm afraid the World Baseball Classic is already beginning to teeter.
Jack Gallagher was named a top 10 columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work in 2004.