World Baseball Classic brings mixed blessings for MLB

By Dave Fultz

Spring training is now upon us and players from around the world are streaming into Arizona and Florida to prepare for the upcoming season. It’s an exciting time for me as a baseball nut, but most people really won’t get into the fun until March 5.

But Dave, you ask, don’t I have to wait until the first week of April for Opening Day and baseball that really matters? The answer is no, you certainly do not, because the second World Baseball Classic is set for this spring, bringing meaningful games back for an entire month before the 2009 regular season gets under way.

For those who don’t know, the inaugural WBC was held in 2006 and Japan took home the top prize. The United States team was ousted early then and is considered by analysts to be among the most improved teams for this year’s tournament. The WBC will feature 39 games at seven sites from March 5-23, with the last two rounds of the tournament at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Team USA, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Japan and Korea are considered to be among the favorites, and each team’s roster is loaded with big-league talent.

Now, I meant to write about this last week, but I was stuck writing the obligatory steroid column after the A-Rod news broke over the weekend before I handed in Baseball 101 to my editors. This was my fifth (I think, I may have lost count) steroid column in my nearly two years as the baseball columnist for The Daily Illini.

Although Major League Baseball, which has a major stake in the success of the WBC as its organizer, wants the tournament to take center stage and thrive in front of an international audience this spring, there are many managers and general managers of MLB teams who are very afraid of the WBC.

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They certainly aren’t afraid the tournament will steal the thunder of the MLB regular season or anything like that, but they are worried about the health of their players and the effect the WBC will have on them. And while hitters can certainly get hurt just like anyone else, it is the pitchers’ health that will keep coaches, managers and front office personnel up nights this March.

As you probably know, major league pitchers are very particular creatures, and their routines are usually very strictly monitored throughout the spring and summer months. Teams even give pitchers guidance as to when, how, where and why they are supposed to pitch on their own time in the offseason. So you can imagine that many pitching coaches are none too happy when their pitchers abandon their programs and amp up their training to start pitching competitively weeks before they would normally start to do so in spring training.

Just like MLB, I walk the fine line between both ends of this issue. I personally love the idea of the WBC, and the fact that players are willing to sacrifice their time in spring camp to represent their country, but as a fan I’m extremely happy when one of my team’s players says he won’t risk his health in the tournament.

Bud Selig and MLB want this tournament to succeed very badly, and I can understand why. With baseball being ousted from the Olympics after last year, an independent international tournament is the only way to continue to spread baseball around the world like the way that basketball and soccer get to benefit from the Olympics and the World Cup. There are vast untapped media markets (see: more money for MLB) to be found, and Selig would be stupid not to take advantage of every possible revenue stream.

So while some team officials and field staff may be of two minds on this issue, everyone will need to publicly toe the party line. The WBC can only be good for baseball’s place in the international sporting community in the long run, but like some others, I too fear the short-term effects that it could have for the upcoming season.

Dave Fultz is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected].