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In the run-up to the World Baseball Classic, an exhibition game was called on account of stitching. Preparing to face the NC Dinos of Korea on Feb. 21 in Dou Liou City, Taiwan, the Cuban national team reneged on an agreement that each team could choose the brand of baseball used by its pitchers, insisting that both clubs play with balls made by Brett Bros. Sports International, Inc. Because the Brett model has thick and wide seams, the Koreans, claiming it would endanger their pitchers, objected. Cuba then suggested a Taiwanese ball, which the Dinos dismissed, also because of its big seams. According to the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency, the Cubans then produced a "mysterious" ball that was also unacceptable to the Korean nine. Game over. In international baseball, apparently, it's three balls and you're out.
The advent of the Dread Ball era was the second international incident in the weeks before the WBC. Three days earlier Taiwan had been caught spying on its Pool B rival, Korea. Disguised as umpire trainees, Taiwanese scouts had made it past stadium security. They might have been able to pull off the ruse except 1) the umpires' room suddenly resembled the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera and 2) the "umpire trainees" pulled out stopwatches and began timing the Korean pitchers' deliveries.
The two countries were scheduled to play on Tuesday, three days after the WBC opened with Taiwan's 4--1 win over Australia. That showdown in Taichung, Taiwan, drew less attention in the U.S. than Derek Jeter's bum ankle. Unwrapped in 2006, the WBC still barely registers as the other March tournament. Like American politics, American baseball is local.
Perhaps a WBC championship will heighten American awareness and make the event really something to spy for, if not to die for—Team USA, which opens March 8 against Mexico, is 7--7 in previous Classics—but at the moment the now quadrennial event is on the brink of a global recession. Although the 2006 and '09 finals were among the highest-rated sports programs in Japanese television history, the champs lack star power. Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Rangers righthander Yu Darvish declined to play. Yankees righty Hiroki Kuroda prefers to hone his pitches at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
The Tigers' Justin Verlander (the 2011 AL Cy Young winner), Angels outfielder Mike Trout (the reigning AL Rookie of the Year) and Giants catcher Buster Posey (the NL MVP) are among the Americans who have chosen club over country, but so have Dodgers pitchers Peter Moylan of Australia and Alfredo Amezaga of Mexico. Presented with the option of playing for the Netherlands or staying with the Rangers, infielder Jurickson Profar, of Curaçao, remained at spring training in Surprise, Ariz. No surprise there.
The WBC simultaneously keeps one foot in the Netherlands and another in the netherworld, in part because of MLB's passive-aggressive approach to its own creation. If the WBC were insignificant, Joe Torre, four-time World Series winner, would not be stepping out of the commissioner's office, where he is the executive VP of baseball operations, to manage a Team USA roster that includes Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. But if MLB were utterly committed to the event, it would not give teams the right to bar recently injured players from competing. On Feb. 21 the Reds blocked Dominican ace Johnny Cueto, now fit after straining an oblique muscle during the NLDS in October. And, of course, MLB would also lobby the Poseys and Trouts to play.
Until all marquee American players make the WBC a priority, it will founder. A tournament that grows the game, stirs the soul and roils the international waters is too important for MLB to keep at a polite distance.
If Team USA stumbles again (the U.S. has never made it past the semis), the 2013 WBC will soon fade like footprints in the sand after the March 19 final in San Francisco's AT&T Park. Of course, given the cinematic possibilities for tales of intrigue, the best hope for this WBC is Red Sox fan Ben Affleck's finding the Taiwanese umpire-trainee caper irresistible. Today, Argo. Tomorrow, The Spy Who Gloved Me.