Classic a worthy major league hit

March 18, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The inaugural World Baseball Classic has had its problems. The umpires have been, um, lacking at times. Attendance was flat at a couple of sites. The tiebreaking method was so convoluted it made the incomprehensible Bowl Championship Series formula look like first-grade math.

Then there was Team USA's early elimination, which means it won't compete in the final four today in San Diego. Nothing buys an American sports fan's favor faster than a soaring triumph, no matter the event (see: women's World Cup soccer in 1999, or snowboarding's Flying Tomato of Turin) but the Classic won't be so fortunate.

Still, despite those negatives - and despite the numbing pre-tournament blather about possible injuries and the complex politics of Cuba's participation - the Classic has been a welcome addition to the sports calendar.

Make that very welcome.

"I've been watching the games every day. Terrific stuff," said Bernie Walter, the longtime Arundel High School baseball coach, who has followed international baseball since he managed an under-18 U.S. team featuring future major leaguers Charles Johnson and Ryan Klesko to a gold medal in a world junior tournament in 1988.

The Classic games have indeed been terrific in most cases - close, well-played, dramatic. The players have gone all out. The fans are into it.

At times it has almost seemed the World Series up and moved to March.

You want March Madness? Check out today's semifinal between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, two countries convinced they play the world's best baseball.

The other semifinal between Japan and South Korea, two countries with long-standing "issues," won't be a lighthearted affair, either.

The winners will meet in Monday's championship, after which there'll be a four-year wait for the second Classic. That's too bad. The event has effectively promoted the game around the world and spun it positively for a change here, surely exceeding commissioner Bud Selig's best-case scenario. He should stage it every two years.

Whenever it is rolled out again, look for more top players to find a way to play instead of summoning flimsy excuses to stay away.

"I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity next time. It was a fun experience right up until tonight," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said after Mexico eliminated the U.S. on Thursday night.

Pitch limits, a slaughter rule and the timing (during American baseball's lazy warm-up month) left open the chance of the event degenerating into a lackadaisical farce, but instead, Jeter and many of the world's best players showed they had learned what Walter did as an under-18 manager years ago.

"There's something special about putting on a U.S. uniform and representing your country," Walter said. "That's what I've enjoyed: seeing the best players in the world feel that excitement. You can tell they're really into it. As a fan, that's satisfying to see."

So was the respectful Japanese response to an obviously botched call that cost them dearly in a game against the Americans last weekend (one player tossed a hat on the field; that's all) and the laugh-out-loud sight of a managerial tantrum being relayed through an interpreter. (Imagine if Earl Weaver ... ah, never mind.) It's the kind of original stuff you only get in international sports, which America's top team-sport athletes have seldom attempted.

Team USA's failure to play to its potential (it went 3-3 with an All-Star lineup) can't be blamed on other teams wanting it more; there's no evidence that was true. Nor was it the fact that other teams had more practice time together. (Maybe the Cubans, but the U.S. never played them.) No, the failure was strictly a result of not hitting consistently with runners on base, and in Dontrelle Willis' case, pitching like it was March.

It was the game's innate randomness that beat Team USA, along with the humbling fact that other countries can play baseball just as well.

Surprised at the latter? You shouldn't be, not with so many players from Latin America, Japan and South Korea thriving in America. The U.S. major leagues still represent the highest level of the sport, but other countries are just as steeped in its nuances and secrets.

Here's my two cents for what to do with the next Classic: First of all, get major league umpires on the field. That's an absolute must. Then, simplify the tiebreaker rules so fans can follow them. (In order: standings, head-to-head results, run differential.) Stick with playing in March, because no other time works better.

The Classic might never become as big as soccer's World Cup - soccer's reach is far more vast - but given the success of the past two weeks, it could become a major event in its own right. In fact, it already is.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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