Victor Martinez was just starting spring training in Florida last month, and already he was feeling the pressure over the World Baseball Classic.
“I don’t know, man,” the veteran slugger said softly. “I think they’re going to have to find a different time to do this.”
The Detroit slugger is on the roster for Venezuela, which begins round-robin play in the WBC on Friday night against Puerto Rico. His concerns about the timing of the event aren’t exactly unique.
Now over a decade old, this international tournament featuring some of the game’s biggest stars is taking place for the fourth time, but as much as players look forward to the opportunity, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s no perfect time and format for this type of competition.
“Coming up with a time to do it, I’m sure is the most confounding part for everybody,” Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said. “It’s a shame because it’s such a great idea, you know like the World Cup in soccer.”
With so many great players from all over the world, baseball seems like an ideal sport for this type of tournament, but while the WBC receives plenty of interest in Asia and Latin America, it hasn’t totally caught on in the United States, where soccer’s World Cup, the Olympic basketball and hockey tournaments and even golf’s Ryder Cup usually draw a decent amount of anticipation.
“I would like to get the WBC to the point where everyone views it as a premier international event,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said a few weeks ago at a spring training event. “I’m going to both Korea and Japan. One of the reasons I’m making that trip is, in those countries, tremendous support and interest in this event, and we need to make sure we get the same kind of interest and support here in the United States. I think the key to that is having a competitive, successful team from the United States.”
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Manfred pushed back against the idea that the WBC’s future is shaky, pointing out how popular the event is around the world. Perhaps it would be taken more seriously in the U.S. if the Americans fared better — they’ve never finished higher than fourth.
This year’s U.S. roster, managed by Jim Leyland, includes big names such as Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. The pitching staff, however, is lacking quite a few stars.
“We’re missing a lot of the best pitchers that we have,” said U.S. second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Tigers. “You look at Clayton Kershaw and David Price and Chris Sale and Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander. You could go on and on.”
None of those aces are on the staff, which underscores one of the event’s biggest challenges — avoiding wear and tear on pitchers who have a long major league season to worry about. In this era of innings limits and heightened sensitivity to pitch counts, everyone’s workload is an issue .
There are rules in place at the WBC limiting pitch counts, but while those restrictions can protect pitchers from overuse, they also contribute to the sense that the top players aren’t able to compete at their highest level in this tournament — which is unfortunate, since players do seem genuinely excited about the chance to participate.
“When the guys get on their teams with their fellow countrymen, and they put on the uniforms, they want to win,” said Brad Ausmus, who managed Israel’s WBC team before being hired by Detroit in 2013. “It’s not an exhibition. There’s a lot of pride that’s involved.”
Ausmus and Kinsler both wondered about the possibility of playing the WBC in the middle of the season, with the major leagues taking time off the way the NHL has done for the Olympics. Max Scherzer, who was supposed to pitch in the WBC this year but had to pull out because of a knuckle injury, figures that’s unlikely.
“The only way to actually make it more popular is if you were to pause the actual MLB season. That’s the only way to have all the best players playing at the same time for their countries,” Scherzer said. “But given the format of the season, no one is going to agree to that, because you’re going to have to take 25 days off to be able to do that.”
Indeed, one problem is that baseball doesn’t necessarily lend itself to shorter tournaments. The major league regular season is often described as a marathon, not a sprint, and the World Series is best-of-seven, not single elimination. If the WBC was condensed too much, it might be even harder to build fan interest. Shorter tournaments can yield flukier results — that, as much as anything, might explain the U.S. team’s disappointing track record.
Martinez had an unusual idea. He suggested that spring training could start earlier in WBC years, perhaps at the beginning of February. That would give those participating in the tournament more time to prepare. Martinez was concerned that players wouldn’t have enough time to get ready this year — which is a problem for the Venezuelans, given how much pressure they’re under to play their best.
“In spring training, you start playing four or five innings, two or three at-bats, and you’re out,” Martinez said. “If we treat the WBC as spring training, we play four or five innings, take everybody out and put another team there — they gonna blow us up. It’s the truth.”
“It’s not fair for our fans, for ourselves,” Martinez added. “You have to turn on the switch a little too soon.”