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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Reflections on the first WBC

In what was an excellent game, far closer than the final 10-5 score indicates, Japan defeated a very strong Cuban team in the final game of the first World Baseball Classic.

The Classic was a huge success, far greater than I'd hoped it would be. It faced a number of difficult obstacles, from the conflicts among owners and players over playing in the WBC, to the obvious rustiness of many major leaguers, to the ultimate competition for TV ratings with the NCAA tournament in the United States. The final game displayed only two major leaguers, although many of those players would make very welcome additions to the Cincinnati Reds' pitching staff. And yet, through it all, the tension was great in almost every game and the crowds were phenomenal. Japan's victory didn't quite feel as good as a World Series Championship to me, but it was probably on par with winning the first round of the playoffs. Not bad for a tournament without any history.

I can only imagine how the global anticipation will build at the next Classic in 2009. Think of all the great rematches we can look forward to: Korea/Japan, the Dominican Republic/Cuba, Puerto Rico/Cuba, Puerto Rico/Dominican, Venezuela/Dominican, USA/Mexico, and USA/Canada. I have little doubt that the competition is going to be phenomenal, that MLB players will indeed fight for opportunities to play, and that the crowds will be even more intense than this year. I'd be shocked if I'll be able to walk up to Chase Field and buy tickets on the day of the game again.

Nevertheless, I would hope that the organizers would consider a few changes to the tournament. Here are a few ideas (most are not original):
  • Hold the Classic at a different time. I know this is one of the most common complaints, but when you hold it in the spring, many major leaguers are demonstrably rusty, and "you force" managers (in their minds, at least) of the WBC teams to treat the tournament as a virtual spring training--making sure everyone gets their work in, etc. Two alternatives:
    • July and August are said to be Baseball's biggest draw months, but June seems like a good time. Players will be in a good groove, all parks in the majors would be eligible for hosting games, etc. The main problem with this is that it would require either an early start and/or a late end date on the season, and baseball season often pushes the limits of when one can play the game in northern cities as it is.
    • November, however, is probably the best time to hold the tourney. I've heard Selig's arguments that many players are tired and/or beat up, but in fact many players will have had at least a few weeks off to recover between the end of the MLB season and the start of the tournament. It's only those players on the World Series' teams that will have minimal rest, and even then you could take a week off. After the success of this year's tournament, I have little doubt that you could convince players to skip out on some of their vacation to come and participate.
  • Adjust the tournament format. The tiebreakers were used to determine a winner in 33% (2 of 6) of the pools this year. That's waaay too often. I'd prefer to see a double elimination tournament similar to what is used in the NCAA College Baseball World Series. That way, teams can play to win games, not just worry about some tiebreaker rule.
  • If we must adhere to the round-robin format and keep the tiebreakers, the first tiebreaker (after head to head record) should be the difference between runs scored and runs allowed -- the best predictor of win/loss records. Why focus only on one aspect of baseball when one can easily focus on the overall difference in scores. It would allow teams that excelled in either offense or defense to compete effectively in the tournament.
  • Make sure that the ESPN broadcasters, not to mention the fans, have all the materials they could possibly need to enjoy the games. While they were much better prepared for the Cuban games, ESPN's broadcasters had almost no statistics for the Asian players, much less interesting tidbits about them during round one. And the WBC website wasn't any help either. I actually had to reconstruct my own stats sheet of Japanese League player stats for team Japan. Come on people! This should be easily accessible by everyone!
  • Require that ESPN (or whoever secures the rights) broadcasts all games live and in their entirety. I had to avoid all news about this tournament most days because I ended up watching a lot of the games via Tivo that were unnecessarily broadcast at midnight or later. And much to my horror, the creepy late-night espn guy would routinely appear on screen and say "due to time constraints, we now skip ahead in the action." Or, worse yet, "due to time constraints, we'll skip ahead in the action after these messages." And don't even get me started about how ESPN overrode the broadcast of the first half-hour of the final game today because of an NIT basketball game that went into double overtime. I'd be absolutely furious if I were Major League Baseball.
If baseball can address all of these issues, I think we've got ourselves an unbelievably good tournament to look forward to for a long time to come. But even if they just hold the same exact tournament next time as they did this year, it's still going to be a great time in '09. -j