World Baseball Classic inspires mixed feelings
FEB 19, 2013 10:33a ET
With the third WBC approaching, the tournament continues to inspire mixed feelings among baseball brass for the excitement it provides and challenges it creates.
There might be no man better acquainted with those mixed feelings than Team USA manager Joe Torre. Having been on the other side — as an MLB manager — Torre knows well the cynicism the WBC can inspire.
"I go back to the first one (in 2006) and I'm the manager of the Yankees and I'm saying 'Oh my goodness, what is this all about? They're taking our players away,'" Torre recalled Monday. "It is sort of a helpless feeling for his manager to lose his players. There's no question about it."
But now on the other side, Torre has a greater appreciation for the opportunity players have to represent their home country on the baseball field.
"Once you put that uniform on, it's responsibility," Torre said. "It's not necessarily just the winning part of it. I think it's just the way your carry yourself and go about it."
With Cactus League managers and general managers gathered for a spring training media day at Chase Field on Monday, the WBC was the subject of considerable buzz. Mangers seem to understand both sides of the dynamic but perhaps can't empathize the way Torre does.
Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, for example, appeared somewhat frustrated by the WBC, acknowledging it is a disruption to preparation for the 2013 season. Milwaukee's situation is different than most, however, as the Brewers will lose 13 players, nine of them major leaguers last season, to the WBC.
"It changes a lot," Roenicke said. "That many people makes it tough."
The Brewers are notably expected to be without star outfielder Ryan Braun (USA) and both their catchers, Jonathan Lucroy (USA) and Martin Maldonado (Puerto Rico).
"I get why a player would want to do it, I understand that, and we're fine with them going and doing it," Roenicke said. "But it just happens that we're getting hit with a lot of guys."
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said he likes the WBC and wants to see it flourish but also said his club maintains a hands-off approach to participation.
"Our perspective has always been we don't discourage guys from playing, and we don't encourage them," Melvin said. "It's up to the player, strictly them. … It's the closest thing they can get to an Olympic environment, and there are players that are excited about doing that. It's hard to take that away from them."
The Brewers are not the only club losing a significant number of players. The Giants are expected to send 10 players, including third baseman Pablo Sandoval and second baseman Marco Scutaro, both of whom are on Venezuela's roster. Unlike Roenicke, however, Giants manager Bruce Bochy isn't worried about disruptions to spring camp.
Bochy, who has the luxury of a more stable roster than Roenicke, even noted a silver lining in getting a better understanding of organizational depth in that period.
"It's an honor for these guys to go represent their country," Bochy said. "And it makes it a little bit easier when you have a group of guys like this who have played together, and not just played together but played well together and won a championship. The concern for having these guys play together and establishing unity, that's just not there."
Bochy did mention that the Giants are particularly focused on making sure players are physically ready to play full-speed games before leaving camp to join their national teams. If a player isn't ready, Bochy said, the Giants won't hesitate to request he stay in camp.
Conditioning has been a sticking point for teams and players through the first two WBCs, a situation Torre acknowledged Monday.
"Spring training has always been that time of year where you get into shape physically," Torre said. "Then the mental part, you sort of gradually work your way up to it."
Torre said some players don't feel they can't get physically ready in time for the WBC, particularly if their season included playoffs. He cited Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who wanted to play for U.S. team but, having pitched in the World Series, ultimately determined he wouldn't be ready for full participation by the time games begin.
Other players, perhaps, value their offseason as a time away from the game and don't want to begin preparing earlier when the WBC comes around. Some choose to decline invitations as they try to win a roster spot, and others prefer to avoid the added distraction. Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez, for example, reportedly told the Brewers on Monday he'd decided not to play for the Dominican Republic, instead focusing on the 2013 season, the last on his current contract.
The U.S. team in particular has taken criticism over the past two WBCs for a lack of star power, as numerous top-tier players have declined invitations. Torre, asked why more stars don't play for the U.S. danced around alternate explanations a bit, saying it's a depth concern.
"I said 'You can't play them all,'" Torre said. "If you're too deep at every position, you're not going to play enough games to give everybody what they would need."
After being eliminated in the second round in 2006 and the semifinals in 2009, the U.S. team is seeking its first WBC crown. It begins that quest with some skepticism that U.S. players don't care as much about the event as foreign players, such as the Japanese, who have won both previous championships.
Torre avoided speaking for other players about a lack of enthusiasm but said he has talked to each of his players, all of whom expressed great excitement at the opportunity.
"I wanted to gauge not only the interest but the excitement about playing with 'USA' across your chest," Torre said. "These players I've talked to that are going to be part of our club are certainly excited about the prospect of playing for their country."
That's the sentiment on which all parties seem to be on the same page. Despite whatever differences players and managers have about the WBC, all seem to appreciate the opportunity. Torre likened the experience for himself to his time managing the Yankees in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the team became a point of inspiration for the city of New York.
"It was at that time that I realized baseball represented more than just entertainment on the field, that we meant a lot to a lot of people," Torre said. "This is going to be a similar emotion, but certainly not the sadness that was part of that."