Monday, March 2, 2009

Superstars Stepping Out

One by one, they are slowly falling away. Star player after star player, expected to compete for their country in the World Baseball Classic, is pulling out of the tournament. The Common Man had high hopes for the tournament. It had a great deal going for it. It was baseball, after all, and baseball is always good, especially when players legitimately care about the outcomes. What's clear about Spring Training games, after watching MLB Network showing local broadcast of Grapefruit and Cactus League action, is that no one really cares about the outcome. The established players clown around, random team executives meander onto the field down the left field line, and managers don't even sit with their teams. In the late innings, instead of Mariano against Mauer, The Common Man is forced to sit through Igawa against Alejandro Machado. Yippee.

At least when Cuba squares off against the Dominican Republic, The Common Man can be relatively sure that the managers are pulling out all the stops, the players are bearing down, and the outcome matters to the fans. Plus, the WBC promised to showcase some of the great unknown players of the game against the great stars of the Major Leagues. It would showcase a contrast of styles and cultures. And it would take some of the focus off of the steroid/A-Rod controversy that's dominated the national news.

However, instead of a triumph, the Classic seems poised to disappoint because Major League teams and players are not willing to risk their health and paychecks. With today's news that Joe Nathan and BJ Ryan are unwilling or unable to play for the U.S. squad, an unofficial tally of players who have ruled themselves out looks like this:

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dominican Republic
Grady Sizemore, CF, USA
Joe Nathan, RP, USA
Joe Mauer, C, USA
Johan Santana, SP, Venezuela
Francisco Liriano, SP, Dominican Republic
Jonathan Papelbon, RP, USA
Brad Hawpe, OF, USA
Carlos Marmol, RP, Dominican Republic
Carlos Zambrano, SP, Venezuela
Placido Polanco, 2B, Dominican Republic
Scott Kazmir, SP, USA
Albert Pujols, 1B, Dominican Republic
David Ortiz, 1B, Dominican Republic
Carlos Pena, 1B, Dominican Republic
Rich Harden, SP, Canada
Chan Ho Park, SP/RP, Korea
Cliff Lee, SP, USA
BJ Ryan, RP, USA

There's undoubtedly more that The Common Man hasn't been able to find in his cursory swing through the press releases, as these are just the ones that have pulled out since the beginning of the year, and have been kind enough to announce their decisiona and reasoning to the world. Some of it is entirely understandable (injuries, position battles) and some of it can be filed under "protecting an investment." Either way, The Common Man figures the players missing, with some extra help to fill in the positional gaps, would beat the ever-loving tar out of most, if not all, of the WBC rosters. The sad truth is that the World Baseball Classic will not showcase the best players in the world this year; instead the world gets to watch the B-squad (especially for the U.S.).

It's enough to make The Common Man reluctantly agree with Venezuelan President-probably-for-life Hugo Chavez, who called on MLB teams in mid-February to allow their players to play for their countries. At a ceremony celebrating Venezuela's soccer team, he complained, "They take away the athlete's right and duty ... to represent Venezuela." He called on MLB to be more like soccer's governing body, FIFA, which forces teams to release their players to play in international competitions. It's not a perfect comparison. For one, FIFA is an organizing body that has central control over many different leagues in many parts of the world. MLB essentially owns the WBC, and the MLB teams own the MLB, so Bud Selig and the WBC mandating that players be allowed to play is very much the proverbial tail wagging the dog. And given that MLB is by far the most dominant league in its sport, the only league that truly draws ballplayers from other nations completely into its fold and fabric, the league, teams, and players wouldn't suffer a significant loss of exposure from not competing.

Still, if it were possible to issue this kind of mandate, The Common Man would be entirely in favor of it, because right now The Common Man is on the verge of giving up on the WBC. He has long believed in the concept and the spectacle of it as a way to celebrate the game around the globe. But it's becoming more and more of a joke as the country that ostensibly sponsors it doesn't seem to give a damn about it. Wouldn't it be nice to see more of this:

Or this, coming from the U.S. team:

Instead of this:

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