The Baseball Desert

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mercy Street?

So, Round 1 of the WBC is over. And what have we learned? Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman, writing on Thursday in Sports Illustrated, suggests that the first thing we've learned so far is how things should not be done.

I don't agree with Weisman. Despite the artificial way the teams have been constructed, the national angle can't be neglected. Even if the games are stopped only by the mercy rule it's important to let countries measure themselves against each other. Mixing up the teams as Weisman suggests wouldn't generate the same motivation and certainly wouldn't generate the same emotions as having national teams play. The current format of the WBC is already flexible (witness the 'requirements' for playing for certain countries), but the basic country vs. country idea shouldn't be changed.

The other thing that bothers me about Weisman's article is that it smacks slightly of chauvinism - "what a privilege and an honour it is for Italian / South African / Dutch players to play alongside Pujols, Chipper, Ichiro & co." It is, of course, but there's as much to be learned by playing against them as there is with them, even if you end up on the wrong end of a 17-0 scoreline.

If this sounds like feeding the Christians to the lions, you need look no further than soccer as a prime example of how this can actually work. Soccer was never a big deal in the U.S. - at grass roots level - until the U.S. team started to made good showings in the World Cup. But nobody at FIFA said: "How about taking the players from the U.S., Ecuador and Tunisia and letting them play alongside the Brazilians, the Germans and the Dutch?" Each country sinks or swims on its own merits, but that is the essential beauty of the tournament. Countries come and play, learn from their experience and hopefully come back stronger and better next time. Should the WBC become a regular thing, I am willing to bet that South Africa won't get beaten up again like they did yesterday.

Mixing up the teams would dilute the intesity level of the tournament, because then it really would be nothing more than a glorified exhibition, a two-week All Star break. Anyone who watched Clemens pitch or Griffey hit yesterday can vouch for the fact that they weren't phoning it in - the Canada game had clearly been a wake-up call for the U.S. squad, who were playing with their backs to the wall, and it showed. You can argue that the crowd only got 5 innings for their money, but they got five innings of real baseball, not five innings of All Star baseball.

I say keep the format. Having a tournament organised by country - even if there is an imbalance in the level of play - is a lot more fun than creating 12 or 16 teams of more-or-less equal ability. Natural selection means that, more often than not, the big boys will make it through to the final stages, but it's important to keep the David vs. Goliath matchups that give the outsider that elusive shot at the dream.
If you're looking for proof that the WBC is a success, at least in this little corner of the Baseball Desert, then just consider that, having spent four months obsessing over the slightest hint of news from New England, right now I have very little idea of what is going on in Red Sox Nation. But fear not - I plan on putting that right this evening: Schilling on the hill against the Pirates. Go Sox!