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Better than advertised (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday March 14, 2006 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday March 14, 2006 1:02PM
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We know and see none of this if we get yet another too-long, routine spring training.

Still not convinced? You haven't been within miles of all those smiles on the U.S. team. If you want your millionaire players to dive for pop-ups, run the bases with abandon, watch the entire game like Little Leaguers from the top step of the dugout and play the game for pride and for fun, just like American Legion ball -- all for what's chump change to them -- the WBC is your ticket to happiness. To a man, the U.S. players have raved about the experience. Chipper Jones, a World Series champion and MVP, called the WBC "the best baseball experience of my life -- bar none."

Jones made that comment on Sunday in a concrete hallway trafficked by food service personnel outside a spartan clubhouse beneath the left-field stands at Angel Stadium. The U.S. was sent to this relative gulag (as measured against their accustomed leather-appointed, multi-plasma-TV, finely catered clubhouse accommodations) by virtue of being the Pool B runner-up. Korea and Mexico, the Pool A and B winners, earned the usual home and visiting clubhouses. It was a kick to see the star-studded U.S. team walking in from the outfield to the game with equipment bags slung on their shoulders like a high school team just off the bus.

Attendance has been good, but below original expectations. But it's a walk-up kind of tournament. Buying tickets in advance for any game after the first round is a crap shoot; you don't know which two teams will wind up in a particular slot. The gate, however, is not as important as the world wide attention, which is a success considering that the 4,000 media credentials issued for the Classic blow away the Olympics and World Series brigades.

Merchandise is flying off the shelves and out of warehouses. Souvenir shirts and jerseys were wiped out at Scottsdale Stadium last Friday nearly an hour into the U.S. game against South Africa. More merchandise was sold in the first round than organizers projected for the entire 17-day event. On March 10 alone, people in Orlando bought Venezuelan jerseys at a rate faster than one every six seconds -- more than 300 were sold in less than 30 minutes. That same day in Puerto Rico, fans bought 2,500 caps.

This somehow is bad for baseball? Yes, people have been hurt, though if you're keeping tabs solely on major leaguers, you might not have noticed. Korea third baseman Dong Joo Kim hurt his left shoulder diving back into first base in a first-round game. He was one of five players declared disabled and replaced on a WBC roster since the tournament began. It happens in Olympic hockey, too. Nothing great ever happened without a risk attached to it. In this case the risk/reward ratio is heavily favored toward action. Doing nothing is always the safe thing to do -- that is, if stagnation is your bag.

Got a problem with the pitch counts? You can't be anti-WBC because of the risk of injury and whine about pitch counts, which are designed specifically to minimize risk to pitchers. Besides, the pitch counts and the tie-breaker system (after head-to-head, it's runs allowed among the tied teams) give a cool quirkiness to the games.

I liked the idea of this tournament from the start. In practice, it's even better than I thought. Last Friday, watching the U.S. play in a sold-out minor league park in Scottsdale, I thought how this would be the last time the U.S. team played in such a small venue in the WBC. I mean, how does a game with no-doubt Hall of Famers Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. on the same team rate a smaller venue than a Diamondbacks-Rockies game in August? It was like watching Springsteen at the Stone Pony.

Starting times could be tweaked a bit and ESPN could do a better job of giving the WBC a real home, complete with some kind of WBC Central, rather than forcing viewers to hunt for the darn games. Major league umpires need to be there. These flaws will be fixed.

The next WBC will be held in 2009 (to get off the same timing as the Olympics and World Cup) and then every four years thereafter. That means the older players who turned a shoulder to the tournament -- Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, John Smoltz, etc. -- probably won't get a mulligan. And the younger guys who missed out on the fun will be fighting each other for roster spots in 2009.

In the press box during that U.S.-South Africa game, I was talking with Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau when he made a sharp observation: "Next year we'll all be missing the World Baseball Classic.'' He's right. In the non-Classic years we'll miss the tension, the competition, the nationalism, the intrigue and the excitement of discovery -- new players, new styles, new trippy bats from the Japanese. It's apparent from the start: We have an instant classic.