World Baseball Classic

by Tim Mosso | 1/9/06 6:00am

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's dream of a "World Baseball Classic" between competing national all-star teams may join the XFL and the Lingerie Bowl in the pantheon of laughably misbegotten sports promotions. The WBC is unfolding as a wholly predictable disaster of truly international proportions as star players opt out, governments clash, and common sense questions about player health grow too loud to ignore.

The WBC was conceived as a showcase for the top talent of sixteen baseball-playing nations. In the proposed format, four pools of teams will play through four elimination rounds to determine who is the greatest baseball nation in the world -- or at least that was the theory. One can imagine the bidding war that erupted over the television rights when Selig secured the participation of such baseball superpowers as the Netherlands and Italy.

Back in the real world, Cuba, a nation that is actually known for its baseball prowess, was banned from participation by the U.S. Treasury Department. How MLB could have taken the WBC this far without testing the waters in Washington, D.C. is a complete mystery. Can you imagine that? The U.S. government is hostile toward Cuba. Shocking.

Politics are just the beginning of the WBC's problems. There is also an excellent chance that the players themselves will be the real stumbling block. You can't blame them, either. The WBC tournament runs concurrently with MLB spring training from early to late March. The WBC will require MLB players to effectively begin their season a month early.

Since many of the star players from the participating countries are already playing in MLB, their primary responsibilities are contractual. No team wants to lose a vital Dominican player for the year because his regular season Venezuelan teammate hit him with a pitch during what amounts to an exhibition game. For this reason, there has been an exodus of star talent, such as Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Buerhle, from the ranks of the WBC's potential rosters. Many players who have committed to the tournament are expected to withdraw as the event draws near. The result will be rosters populated by has-beens and never-beens. The WBC will be fought out by the baseball equivalents of Lou Bega and Gloria Estefan (assuming the Cubans are allowed to play).

Another major concern is the concept of nationality. The old European jokes about Americans holding a world series without inviting the world ring a bit hollow these days. Players from nations as varied as Curacao and Australia play in the major leagues. Venezuela and Cuba already have stars in the majors, including members of the 2005 world champion Chicago White Sox. Japanese players are excelling in MLB. The Dominican Republic is flooding the major leagues with talent. All of these players already create huge interest in their home countries and serve as valuable ambassadors for the sport.

Why Selig thought it would be more exciting to see the B-list players butt heads in WBC than watch the A-list names play together in MLB is a question without a good answer. Even if the Cubans are allowed to participate, their current MLB stars are considered defectors and will not be allowed to participate with the Cuban team. As a result, Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez of the Washington Nationals has applied to pitch for Puerto Rico.

As if this concept of "national teams" weren't confusing enough, WBC rules allow players with certain ancestries to play for nations other than those of their birth. Frank Catalantto of Long Island, Mike Piazza of Philadelphia, and Doug Mirabelli of Kingman, Arizona will lead an Italian squad as authentic as the Olive Garden.

Make no mistake: world baseball will be damaged by this farcical WBC exercise. When the leaders of global baseball shoot themselves in the foot, the world will notice. Bud Selig should be worried about knocking steroids down for the count, relocating the Florida Marlins, and keeping Milton Bradley in line. Besides, one can only imagine that Selig, the man who cancelled the 1994 World Series, ran the Milwaukee Brewers into the ground, and allowed steroids to compromise the sport, wouldn't have a foot left to shoot.