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Here's Rx for US to win next WBC
Another World Baseball Classic ended without Team USA as its champion, which the most jingoistic critics see as a fatal flaw. How can this be a legitimate tournament if we don’t win?
The hard truth is that the Americans didn’t deserve to win, which, far from undermining the tournament, highlights its relevance. The U.S. supplies most of the players in Major League Baseball, but that’s not necessarily the same as having the best.
After the Dominican Republic completed an 8-0 run to the WBC title Tuesday in San Francisco, reliever Octavio Dotel said there is “no question” his homeland is the best baseball country in the world right now.
American fans can’t muster much of a retort. Team USA is 10-10 in three WBCs. It would be too strident to say we’ve abdicated our national pastime, but it’s apparent that other countries play the sport as well as we do — and with greater passion.
The irony is that the first three WBCs should have been easier for the U.S. to win than the next three, presuming the tournament continues (and the commissioner’s office insists it will). The WBC’s oft-stated mission is to grow the game globally. Having accomplished that — with Brazil and China potential baseball powers for the next generation — the WBC field is about to get tougher.
Would it help the tournament’s popularity among American fans if the home team won? Of course. But it would matter more if Team USA fully invested in the effort to win, in a way that more completely realized the potential of international baseball.
By that, I mean two things:
1. More frequent international play, beyond the WBC every four years.
2. Greater representation among star players on Team USA.
Since I’ve written about the second point before, let’s focus on the first.
We know that soccer — or football, as it’s known elsewhere — is the world’s most popular sport. While club loyalties account for much of the sport’s passion, the near-continuous cycle of international play (World Cup, World Cup qualifiers, UEFA European Championship) pulls in more casual fans.
National teams play “friendlies” against one another in between the major tournaments, a concept baseball should mimic. I understand that baseball is not soccer, and the WBC is not the World Cup. But anyone who attended or watched the U.S.-Dominican Republic game March 14 at Marlins Park knows the potential of a best-vs.-best matchup between great baseball countries.
The game was a spectacle, with horns and flags and the fourth-largest crowd in the stadium’s history. It was a visual delight, terrific for television. I suspect the atmosphere would have been similar even without the opportunity to win a trophy several days later. The competition — amplified by the passion of Dominican fans — was the thing.
And after such a riveting event — won by the Dominicans, with a stunning rally against closer Craig Kimbrel — it would be a shame if Major League Baseball and the players’ union let the fervor lay dormant for another four years.
Baseball doesn’t need a major international tournament every year. That would be impractical, anyway, given the objections of many team executives to the WBC. But why not hold a single-game rematch at midseason?
The teams could add players who weren’t on the WBC rosters — Justin Verlander, Buster Posey and Bryce Harper for the U.S., Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre and Jose Bautista for the Dominican. Baseball could promote the game as an international showcase and hold it the night after the All-Star Game — an open date on the American sports calendar. The stage would belong to baseball, which isn’t the case in March for the WBC.
The logistics would be simplified by holding the game in the same ballpark as the All-Star Game — with many of the same players. Imagine, then, how the scene would look this July: the Dominican Republic, as reigning WBC champions, against the U.S., with something to prove, at Citi Field in New York.
Think the city’s large Dominican population would turn out for that one?
Sponsorships and television rights could, in time, turn the showdown into a moneymaker for owners and players. And if the concept is successful, the games could occur on a semi-regular basis with the U.S. playing different international opponents (e.g., Japan, Korea, Venezuela, Puerto Rico).
Is that scenario realistic this year? Probably not. But events of this magnitude are crucial if the WBC and Team USA are to strengthen their brands. The more often baseball fans see major leaguers in Team USA jerseys, the more they will be aware of high-level international competition, and the more they will look forward to the WBC when it comes around.
And let’s not overlook the benefit to Team USA’s chances of winning the next WBC. It’s often said that American players aren’t used to the urgent, one-and-done style demanded in international baseball. Even one or two “friendlies” in between WBCs would give them more experience in that environment.
The superstars who decided against playing in this year’s WBC may have an easier time committing to a one-day event surrounding the All-Star Game. And if they enjoy the experience, they could become spokesmen for Team USA in the way that New York Mets star David Wright has.
In the end, of course, that’s where this needs to go — near-uniform participation among America’s elite players. And Team USA came closer to that ideal in 2013 than you might think. Would Posey, Harper and Mike Trout have been that much of an upgrade over Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun and Adam Jones? I don’t think so. For all the questions about a pitching staff without Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw & Co., Team USA compiled a 3.17 ERA.
Know how many major league teams had a better ERA during the 2012 regular season?
The Americans played hard. The Americans played well. Other teams played better. In that way, the 2013 WBC revealed — even more powerfully than the first two editions — how intense baseball’s global competitiveness has become. For U.S. players and fans to acknowledge that would represent a significant and needed attitude adjustment, similar to the transformation USA Basketball underwent following its Olympic disappointment in 2004.
It was then that Jerry Colangelo assumed complete autonomy over the senior men’s national team. In order to be considered for the next Olympic roster, Colangelo mandated that players commit to multiple years of participation and camps because, as he put it, “The day was gone when you could roll out a ball, lace up your shoes and beat everyone else in the world.”
“I felt we had shown little respect for how far the game had come around the world,” Colangelo, now the chair of USA Basketball’s board of directors, told me in a recent interview. “We needed to show these basketball organizations, representing their countries, the respect they deserved. Only then would we re-earn the respect we once held. That would require a cultural change, in terms of attitude, and a real commitment on our part.”
And they made it. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have the back-to-back gold medals to prove it. Now USA Baseball needs its answer to Colangelo, a Hall of Fame executive with cachet and vision who can make the national team his fulltime focus.
And Team USA, in some form, needs to play more than a half-dozen games together every four years if it wants to be prepared for a major international tournament.
To win the 2017 WBC, Team USA doesn’t necessarily need different players. It needs a different approach. The Americans can’t merely count on a few more superstars signing up for the team. That won’t be enough, because the Dominicans will add a few more superstars, too. And if Team USA has any doubt about that, I would recommend setting up some friendly meetings between now and 2017.