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Sandlot baseball

For the WBC to take off, it needs a fantasy format

Posted: Thursday March 9, 2006 11:28AM; Updated: Thursday March 9, 2006 1:14PM
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It's nice to see Ichiro suit up for Japan, but South Africa and Italy don't have any Ichiros.
It's nice to see Ichiro suit up for Japan, but South Africa and Italy don't have any Ichiros.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The World Baseball Classic has made little effort to conceal itself as a marketing tool for the sport -- or, since baseball is religion for so many of us, an evangelical tool. Nothing wrong with that; baseball is certainly as worthy of worldwide devotion as any other game.

But if you're going to spread the gospel, you should put your best sermon forward. And the format for the inaugural WBC is arguably a chapter-and-verse study of how not to.

The WBC's first mistake was having teams compete by nation or, in the case of Puerto Rico, territory. Though it might seem logical to follow the Olympic or World Cup models, playing by flag offers considerable peril.

Generally speaking, geographical affiliations in baseball are artificial constructs. The Houston Astros represent Houston, but it's news when a local player such as Roger Clemens joins the team. The system works to the extent that Houstonians have reason to believe 1) their team can win, and 2) the competition is worth winning, and therefore invest themselves in caring. One of the most intractable problems baseball faces is when a city -- say, Kansas City -- loses faith in its team's ability to compete. Regional interest in the sport declines, to the point where the city becomes scuttlebutt for contraction.

Unapologetically, or at least blindly, the WBC's organizers have flaunted these flaws. The WBC throws together 16 countries of almost grotesquely different talent levels, from the United States down to South Africa -- the global equivalent of placing the New York Yankees in the same playoff bracket as P.S. 103.

The quality of mercy may not be strained, but the quality of the mercy rule certainly is. No doubt, there will be a blink of excitement in South Africa when David first stands in the batter's box against Goliath. But after the U.S. builds a quick double-digit lead (barring a South African Miracle of Miracles on Grass), that fleeting rapture won't do much to sow the seeds of baseball in Johannesburg. You don't win the hearts and minds of the globe with games being called off because they are too one-sided. It's one thing to be Timmy Lupus; it's quite another to pay big bucks to see Timmy Lupus play.

What do the fans in places where baseball is embryonic, such as China, gain from an 18-2 loss like the one China suffered to Japan last week? What do the fans in places where baseball is established, like Japan, have to gain from seeing their same old players in one-sided games on their home turf? Judging by the four-figure attendance in Tokyo, not much. The reaction of some fans to the Dominican Republic-Venezuela game on Tuesday was fun, but generating excitement in a baseball hotbed is beside the point.

As the WBC ventures toward the semifinals and finals, the countries or territories that survive will be the ones where baseball is best established, such as Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. (though the Americans may be in jeopardy of advancing). It's true that there could be some great matchups in the finals, and if the primary goal of the World Baseball Classic were to establish a true world champion, then the current format would make more sense. The only necessary adjustments would be to make sure the best players are playing at the best time under the best rules -- no pitch-count limits or widespread withdrawals.