Tuesday, March 24, 2009
WBC can grow with a few tweaks
By Jim Caple ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES -- The World Baseball Classic is designed to showcase and grow the sport globally, but baseball is already such an international game that the winning pitcher in Monday's championship game is half-Iranian. We can only hope the International Olympic Committee was paying attention.
Walking into Dodger Stadium before the game, I saw an American fan holding a sign that read: "I paid $89 and all I got was Japan-Korea.'' There were probably many U.S. fans who felt that way -- well, those who cared about the WBC in the first place -- but Monday's championship between Japan and Korea was among the most exciting games I've ever seen. It was played with such intensity that a player shattered his helmet sliding into second and the game went an eardrum-threatening, cuticle-devouring 10 innings, which was fortunate because there STILL were fans arriving at Dodger Stadium as late as the seventh and eighth inning. I thought that was impressive, until I saw a shot of Korean fans crowding a stadium across the Pacific in Seoul to watch the game on the video screen during the middle of their workday. (Although, as great as the championship was, you just know that some ornery old Japanese columnist wrote that the problem with WBC games is they always last until after noon.)
Japan's 5-3 victory -- won by Ichiro (who else?) in the 10th inning after Korea tied the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against Yu Darvish (he of the Iranian descent) -- was a fitting way to end the WBC. With the exception of the two rather ugly semifinal games, this was a gripping, entertaining tournament filled with moments so emotional that they occasionally left the winning players in tears and on their knees. We had the Netherlands' stunning upsets over the Dominican Republic (if Hall of Fame voters won't vote Bert Blyleven into Cooperstown as a pitcher, maybe they'll vote him in as a pitching coach), America's thrilling rally in the bottom of the ninth against Puerto Rico to reach the semifinal round, Monday's thrilling championship, and many other moments that were far superior to a spring training B-squad game between the Cardinals and Orioles.
If you were among the many Americans who didn't see any of it, too bad. Because you missed something special.
Fans of Team Korea were into the game, both at Dodger Stadium and back home.
"It has given the game a great platform to grow globally,'' said Paul Archey, who oversees MLB International. "That is at the core of what we're trying to do.''
Can the WBC get better? Sure, it can.
First of all, it's going to get bigger. Archey said the 2013 WBC likely will expand to 24 teams, adding such countries as the Czech Republic, Nicaragua, Colombia and noted baseball powerhouse Germany.
"The odds are pretty good,'' he said of an expanded field.
To accommodate the extra countries, he said there will be a play-in tournament that would be held sometime in the year leading up to the WBC.
The next thing the WBC should do is play the final round during the All-Star break (perhaps in place of the All-Star Game), but Archey made it pretty clear that this is not going to happen.
"We like March as the time to play this tournament," he said
OK, then. If baseball won't move the time of the championship round, it should move the next one to Japan. The country earned the right to host the next championship after winning the first two titles, selling out the Tokyo Dome for first-round games, drawing thousands of fans to mere workouts and posting TV ratings that would make the NFL envious.
Obviously, there are two problems with that. One, it has been tough enough getting American players to interrupt their normal spring routine to play WBC games on this continent; it would be even more challenging to get them to Tokyo. Two, if Americans aren't watching the games in prime time, why will they watch the games at 3 a.m. or on tape delay?
Team USA provided one of the dramatic moments of the WBC with its come-from-behind win against Puerto Rico.
The answer to the first issue is to pay American players bonuses to play in Japan, just as they receive when teams open the season there. That, plus the desire to win the tournament, could provide the extra needed incentive to make the flight (I mean, all they have to do is relax in first class for nine or so hours -- how tough is that?).
If you start the games at 8 p.m. in Japan on the weekend, you could market it as "Breakfast at Tokyo" since that would mean a 7 a.m. ET first pitch. American fans may not wake up for the first couple innings, but they could see the final innings, especially if Daisuke (Full Count) Matsuzaka is pitching.
Archey didn't rule out playing the championship elsewhere despite the TV ratings issue. "When we're playing Opening Day in Japan, we don't play it at a time to get higher ratings here,'' he said, "we're playing it at a time that is best for the fans and the market over there.''
There are other minor things that can be done to improve the WBC. Rearrange opponents for the second round to avoid having teams play each other so often -- Japan and Korea may be the international equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox, but even they grew tired of playing each other five times. Eliminate the seeding games that were beyond meaningless. Boost attendance by lowering ticket prices that ranged from $120 to $500 for the final round. Make sure Davey Johnson is awake.
Remember, the WBC is still a work in progress. Each time they play it, we learn a little more. The tournament already provides some of the best, most exciting baseball you could ever want. Who knows? Given enough tinkering, time and tradition, maybe even Americans will tune in and see what they've been missing.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.