It’s Hard to Be Excited About World Baseball Classic When U.S. Players Aren’t


Syndergaard was asked on Friday whether he had any regrets about not playing for the United States in the tournament. He said no and explained, “Because I’m a Met.” He added, “Ain’t nobody make it to the Hall of Fame and win the World Series playing in the W.B.C.”

And when fans from the United States talk about baseball with one another, does anyone speak passionately about this tournament? With so many of the best American players deciding they would rather stay with their teams, it sends a powerful message to fans: We don’t care, so why should you?

“A key to the W.B.C.’s success is to have the best possible rosters we can have,” Commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged in Phoenix last month, just after spring training began. “I think we’ve made real progress this time around in terms of the quality of the rosters.”

That is debatable, especially when it comes to the United States pitchers. In 2013, the starters were R. A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong and Ross Detwiler. Later this week at Marlins Park, another first-round site, these starters will represent the United States: Chris Archer, Danny Duffy, Marcus Stroman and Tanner Roark.

Undoubtedly, all of those pitchers have talent. But this year’s group has combined for one All-Star selection (by Archer in 2015) and zero World Series starts.

Injuries naturally whittled the pitching pool a bit. The former All-Star Sonny Gray, who dealt with trapezius and forearm injuries last season, was denied a spot by the event’s insurance carrier. Max Scherzer, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, backed out with a finger injury.

Yet it is startling to consider how many healthy American starters will not be going. Besides Kershaw, Bumgarner, Kluber, Syndergaard and Verlander, there are Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and Aaron Sanchez. That’s 13 healthy, ace-level pitchers who won’t be there.

The fragile nature of pitching distinguishes baseball from every other sport. The pitcher has extraordinary influence on the outcome of a game, yet his task is so physically demanding that his workload is severely restricted. You can swing a bat as much as you want, but throw too hard, too often, and you’ll wind up in surgery.

This is why teams cringe when their pitchers take part in the W.B.C. The tournament is a joint venture between M.L.B. and the players’ union, leaving general managers out of the equation; they offer a thin smile, grit their teeth and go along. Expanding the game on a global scale is not their concern. Paid to build a team that can win the World Series, they shudder to see their pitchers exerting themselves in March for a different purpose.

This is why Verlander, who rediscovered his top form last season after dealing with a core injury, is out. He would like to pitch, but Jim Leyland, the manager for the United States and Verlander’s former manager with Detroit, advised him against it. On a human level, Leyland understands it is most important for Verlander to stay in his comfort zone as he prepares for the Tigers’ season.

That explanation makes perfect sense; Verlander earns an average of $28 million a year to win games for the Tigers. Kershaw, who was injured for much of last season, makes even more to do so for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Trout has no health concerns; he simply declined for personal reasons. In weighing his options last year, Harper bluntly said he did not sense much excitement from other stars.

“I really just think if we have the support of all the players in the big leagues on the American side, then I’ll definitely play,” he told CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I’d love to. Hopefully, we get some guys like Thor in New York and guys like that.”

Thor, of course, is Syndergaard, who is ensconced in Port St. Lucie as the rare Mets starter not coming off surgery. No rational Mets fan would want to see Syndergaard overdo it in March because, as the official marketing slogan goes, “This year, we play #FORGLORY.” Harper, predictably, declined to play, too.

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Few Mets fans would want to see Noah Syndergaard, the rare Mets starter not coming off surgery, overdo it in March.

Credit
Tim Clayton/Corbis, via Getty Images

To its credit, baseball recognizes the tournament’s limited appeal to American fans, who are conditioned to care primarily about their favorite team.

“The U.S. is always going to be a bigger challenge,” Manfred said. “People have Major League Baseball here. During the spring, they have spring training games as well as the W.B.C. But the one thing that occurs to me off the top of my head is a good performance by the United States certainly would be helpful to the event here in the United States.”

There is enough talent to spare. Two third basemen who have won Most Valuable Player Awards, Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant, will not play — but Nolan Arenado might be just as good, and he will. Giancarlo Stanton, whose raw power is unmatched, will also take part. Buster Posey, the American catcher, has an M.V.P. Award and three World Series rings.

And let’s face it: This event is not about the United States, anyway. Among many Latin American players, there is an endearing, authentic verve for the tournament. In winning the 2013 W.B.C., the Dominicans rallied around a lucky banana. They are stacked again, with Jose Bautista, Dellin Betances, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jeurys Familia, Manny Machado, Starling Marte, Carlos Martinez, Gregory Polanco, Carlos Santana and Edinson Volquez. When Hanley Ramirez went down with a sore shoulder, the team replaced him with Jean Segura, who led the National League in hits last season. My goodness.

“It’s incredible,” Betances said. “I feel like all the top players want to play in it, which is pretty cool. I feel like you could make two teams with some of the guys who aren’t even participating. It’s unbelievable, that roster.”

The 2013 runner-up, Puerto Rico, has Javier Baez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Edwin Diaz, Francisco Lindor and Yadier Molina. Venezuela looks strong, too, with Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, Felix Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, Ender Inciarte, Victor Martinez, Salvador Perez and Francisco Rodriguez.

So there are lots of stars. There are old friends, like Chien-Ming Wang of Taiwan and China’s Bruce Chen. And there are curiosities, like Yoenis Cespedes’s younger brother, Yoelqui, of Cuba.

Baseball will return to the Olympics in 2020, but stopping the Major League Baseball season to send players there disrupts the flow of the schedule and the routine of pitchers. Baseball is meant to be enjoyed every day, and pitchers, again, are unlike any other athlete in team sports. Shutting down almost all of them for an extended period at midseason is not a risk worth taking.

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Players for Japan gave their manager, Tatsunori Hara, a ride after they won the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Los Angeles.

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Pool photo by Mark J. Terrill

For an international spectacle, this timing and format are probably the only ones that work. Energizing fans worldwide is a progressive, noble effort, and perhaps some young viewers will be inspired to play or follow the game. For a sport often shortsighted about its long-term health — it has refused to hold a World Series game in the daytime, when children can watch to the final out, since 1987 — there is plenty of good that can come from this.

But without an enthusiastic commitment from so many of baseball’s most marketable stars, the tournament will always lack widespread legitimacy. It is a fun event, an intriguing diversion from the tedium of spring training, a nice little kick-start to the season. It is not much more than that.

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