Thursday, February 28, 2013
Make WBC participation mandatory
By Jim Bowden
The only way to elevate MLB player participation in the WBC is to make it mandatory.
In the combined 15 years I served as general manager of both the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals, I was always a huge proponent of the World Baseball Classic. Baseball is an international sport, and perhaps someday the World Series will include teams from around the world rather than just clubs from the United States and Canada.
Until then, the WBC is a welcome alternative. It’s been a relative success internationally, underscored in 2009, when each game averaged 2 million viewers. Japan won both the 2006 and 2009 tournaments, while the United States, which has arguably the best collection of players in the world, has not fared well in the WBC mainly because so many players decline invitations to participate.
WBC Dream Team?
What would Team USA look like if it was mandatory for MLB players to participate in the WBC?
Their reasons for not playing are varied and justified to a certain degree. Money plays a part; Justin Verlander isn’t participating for fear of injury during contract negotiations; Jurickson Profar is focused on making the Texas Rangers. If Profar plays in the WBC, it could mean the difference between making the team or not and receiving a big league paycheck or not. Mike Trout simply thought he needed a full spring training to be prepared for the regular season.
On the other hand, Russell Martin’s cavalier withdrawal from Team Canada because they wouldn't let him play shortstop illustrates the somewhat lax attitude many MLB players have toward the tournament. Martin’s actions essentially mock the WBC. Team USA has been guilty of this; they simply do not take the same amount of pride in the tournament as other countries such as Japan, Cuba, South Korea, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Sure, it's not the Olympics, but those countries seem to better understand the honor and privilege of representing one’s country.
However, if the World Baseball Classic is to reach its potential and help the sport open doors to new revenues and audiences, we need to change the culture and attitude regarding major league players’ participation. For this to happen, baseball must make participation mandatory by all healthy players, just as it does for the All-Star Game. It should become part of the player uniform contract as well as the collective bargaining agreement.
Watching for injuries The fact is, players who aren’t participating because they’re worried about risking injury have a myopic view because the same risk is involved working out for their own team. An elite player can be injured in a WBC game just as easily as he can be injured during his team’s spring camp.
There’s one exception to this -- players rehabbing injuries. I learned this the hard way, as did baseball.
In 2009, as GM of the Nationals, I tried to block reliever Luis Ayala from participating in the WBC. I simply didn’t feel he was 100 percent recovered from elbow surgery. Baseball allowed him to play, he blew out his arm and we lost an integral part of our bullpen. Baseball is now more careful in its decision-making process regarding players coming back from injuries. Hence, the Reds are holding back Johnny Cueto, who still is recovering from an injury sustained last season.
Motivation problem The United States’ team management consists of solid baseball people led by manager Joe Torre, general manager Joe Garagiola and pitching coach Greg Maddux. Torre managed 13 teams to first place, including four World Series champions. Garagiola has long been considered one of the game’s best administrators, and Maddux knows as much about pitching as any living human being. Despite this “Dream Team” of management, an embarrassing amount of players turned down the opportunity to play for the United States. They put together the best possible roster given the circumstances, but if playing for Torre, Maddux and your country isn’t enough to attract more major league players to participate, what is?
I asked Garagiola if baseball should make it mandatory in the future.
“No, I think it’s better this way because we get the players who want to play,” he said.
From my perspective, the only way to create that feeling of wanting to play in the WBC and instilling that sense of honor and privilege to play for one’s native country is to make participation mandatory for healthy MLB players. When participation in the All-Star Game was made mandatory beginning last season there was little objection. Fans earn (and pay for) the right to see MLB’s best in the All-Star Game, so why shouldn’t they expect to see the best from around the world in the WBC?
If making participation in the WBC mandatory by all healthy major leaguers sounds a little draconian, I just don’t see any other way to get more of MLB’s biggest stars to compete in the WBC. Of course, the players' association would have to be on the same page with MLB and its teams. It’s also not fair that some teams encourage their players to participate while others discourage their players. That can hurt competitive balance, sends mixed messages and contributes to the lax attitude among players. After all, if his own team isn’t behind the concept, why should a player be?
Further, mandatory participation is necessary because MLB does not enjoy the star power and fall-in-line mentality of the NBA. Meaning, when NBA players see superstars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul accept invitations to represent their country, other players follow suit. However, in baseball, the star power is dispersed among so many more players that even respected stars like Derek Jeter simply aren’t enough to influence other players. Honestly, does Matt Kemp really care if Jeter is playing in the WBC?
Until there’s a sea change in attitude and perception about the World Baseball Classic, a change even winning the WBC might not solve, the rest of the world will continue to lap Team USA. It is a sad irony that the United States team and MLB players can’t muster up enough motivation to prove that baseball is indeed “America’s pastime.”