Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Problems With the World Baseball Classic

I like the World Baseball Classic - I really do. Granted, I'd probably still rather watch regular season games, but this is a great diversion. I'm not in the camp of old school traditionalists, who believe that spring training is sacred and that they're messing with the season by having this mini-tournament in March. In fact, a good case could be argued that spring training could be much shorter than it is today. Far from taking the winter off, many players today work out every day of the year, and arrive to camp in as good of condition as they were in last fall. Besides, players in the WBC are getting their work in with their respective countries anyway.

But while I have no problem with the WBC itself, I take issue with many of the rules and regulations of the tournament.

1) The Venues. The tournament is all about showcasing the game on an international stage. The problem is that there are too few actual international stages - a lot of the games are held in the US and Canada, where there are already MLB teams. There needs to be more games in more places, preferably with the home team playing.

Baseball, and sports in general are a lot more fun to watch when the fans are excited - it gives a sense of urgency that comes across both on the field and on TV. US fans, perhaps understandably, are not all that jazzed about the tournament - they know that the US players are the best and have little "national pride" - besides most fans are looking forward to the beginning of actual MLB season. Fans (and players) in other countries however, take the game seriously. In 2006, the Puerto Rican fans went crazy for their team, and it was great to watch them playing drums and chanting during the games. My point is, that when your goal is to showcase the game's international flavor, it's best to do this in front of rabid international fans, rather than in front of jaded US fans regarding the games as mere exhibitions.

2) Ticket Prices. Touching on my point about excited fans being a key to entertaining baseball, the WBC needs to lower the ticket prices to get more fans actually at the games. The WBC is fighting an image that the games are mere exhibitions - and having some stadiums half empty doesn't do much to dispel the image. The WBC learned their lesson in 2006, when they started out charging World Series prices and had to lower them to limit embarrassment, but a quick look on the WBC site and going to the games is still expensive, both here and in Japan and Puerto Rico.

Lowering the prices, especially in Puerto Rico when the average income is lower, would do a lot to improve the atmosphere in the park (and hence on TV) as well as promote the games as a goodwill effort by the MLB rather than a money-making venture. Pricing the games depending on match-up would also be a step forward - games not featuring the home team were particularly sparse, but really how do you expect fans in Japan to shell out $40 to watch China vs. Chinese Taipei?

3) The Rules. The rules are a little different in WBC play. Of course, we all know about the pitch counts. By and large, I think they are necessary and a good idea - we don't want guys getting injured before the season, and it's better to enforce this with rules rather than relying on the manager's benevolence.

However, some of the rules are just wacky. For instance, if the game goes into the 13th inning, runners are placed at first and second to start the inning. Imagine if this happened in the finals - what a laughingstock it would be. Games that go deep into extra innings are rare, and if the game is important, can be extremely exciting - let's not mess with rules that have been in place for over a hundred years.

4) The Teams. There are 16 teams in the tournament, which I believe is far more than the talent can support. I realize that they want to promote the game in a wide variety of places, but you have to admit that games between the Netherlands and South Africa really suck. Since the worst teams will be ousted from the tournament early on, this isn't too terribly problematic, but having clearly unworthy teams reinforces the image of the WBC as an exhibition without any real teeth to it. Another problem is that it's baseball and anything can happen. In 2006 Canada beat the US, the Netherlands beat Panama 10-0, and Australia nearly defeated both the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. In such a short tournament, there's no guarantee that the best teams make it to the finals or even out of the first round (case in point: 2006, US). I'd prefer to see some of the weak teams weeded out to avoid blowouts and boring games as well as increase the chances that the best teams (and the teams we all want to see) are still playing at the end.

In summary, I like the tournament, but it could be SO much better with a few tweaks. Over the next few posts, I'll be previewing some of the matchups as well as unveiling my own revised WBC format, which I think would make the tournament far more exciting.