Bob Ryan

It's a classic case of little interest

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 5, 2009
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The World Baseball Classic got underway today (Did any of you insomniacs happen to catch the 4:30 a.m. first pitch between Japan and China?), and I'm tempted to say, "What's the point?"

Naturally, I do know the point. But what kind of a "Classic" is this from our point of view when the United States outfield consists of Ryan Braun, Adam Dunn, Shane Victorino, and Curtis Granderson? And if Albert Pujols is the best player in the world, why isn't he suiting up for the Dominican Republic?

Insurance. That's why.

I'm all for international competition. You put a basketball team with "USA" on the front of the jersey and I'm there. It has been my astonishingly great privilege to have seen America's best perform in Barcelona, Toronto, Atlanta, Athens, Indianapolis, San Juan, Sydney, Tokyo, and Beijing, among other venues. Even better, from a competitive and emotional standpoint, are the fierce battles waged by countries other than the USA. Nationalism is a powerful force.

It is for the rest of the world, anyway. For whatever reason, Americans have become curiously unresponsive to the idea of international team competition. The idea that America has lost its primacy in the world of international basketball never had the resonance I thought it might. This is the game we invented (OK, Dr. James Naismith was a Canadian, but he came up with the basketball idea right here in the Springfield YMCA), but when Argentina started us on the downward slope with that defeat of the US team in the 2002 Worlds in Indianapolis, nobody outside of those directly involved seemed to care very much.

But the rest of the world took it very seriously.

The rest of the world takes all international competition very seriously. The World Cup is the biggest and most prestigious sporting event in the world. Olympics? Nah. They're nice, but for most of the world, they're a solid No. 2, and even then, we're talking strictly about the Summer Games. When you start talking Winter Olympics, you're writing off Africa, South America, and a huge chunk of Asia. Australia will give you a skier or two, and a couple of long-track speedskaters, but that's pretty much it.

The World Cup is a different matter. I guarantee you that despite all the sour economic news that dominates the conversation in every corner of the globe, when that Cup competition gets underway next year in South Africa, those countries fortunate enough to have qualified will be fixated on their national football teams as long as they are alive. Meanwhile, competition for one of those precious 32 spots galvanizes the population, even now.

The World Cup is one competition that works, simply because everyone concerned wants to make it work. Players routinely leave their club teams for national qualifying games, no questions asked. There are no conflicts with any national leagues once the Cup year rolls around. The Cup comes first.

So right away we have a problem with this World Baseball Classic. The timing stinks. Our teams are concerned with a proper preparation for the upcoming baseball season. The WBC is distasteful to our teams on more than one level. For one thing, there is the fear of injury. Secondly, there is the fear of injury. And then you always have the fear of injury.

Team USA manager Davey Johnson is boldly proclaiming his team to be the favorite, but within the American baseball world, his enthusiasm approximates the sound of one hand clapping because it is a given that most executives and managers in baseball hope the US gets eliminated quickly. Forget national pride. These people are far more concerned about themselves. They just want all their players back, healthy and ready to go.

I said the timing stinks, and it does, but when exactly would be a good time for the Americans? Can you imagine an NHL-like two- or three-week break in the middle of the season? I can't. Some people say it would be better to do this in some warm-weather spots at the end of our season. And what team would like its pitchers to participate then? So that will never happen.

There is a huge difference between basketball and hockey teams engaging in spirited international competition and baseball teams doing the same. Once you get beyond the general wear-and-tear factor, the huge difference is there is nothing in either winter sport that equates to a baseball pitcher. Goalie? You get two or even three quality goalies, alternate them, and it's no big deal.

Pitching is always a big deal.

In theory, a serious eight-team tournament featuring the US, Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, South Korea, Puerto Rico, and Canada would be a very enticing spectacle. There are bragging rights at stake for each of those clubs. Six of those eight countries (I know Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, but it's a distinct country in the world of international sport) contain the names of every active major award winner. Cuba's place on the world baseball stage has been firmly established. South Korea is an evolving baseball power that will prove to be a tough out in this tournament.

In some mythical proper time and place, with all the very best players involved, that would be a very worthy sporting exercise.

Instead, we have the WBC, which has been padded with no-hopers such as China, Italy, and South Africa to come up with the nice round number of 16. That would be like the NCAA Tournament filling out the final three at-large spots with club teams. So the WBC cannot be taken seriously on that basis alone.

But neither can it be taken seriously when so many of the best players aren't participating. We actually have a guy on the US pitching staff most average fans don't know. Quick. Joel Hanrahan. Who's he play for?

Answer: the Nationals.

Who are the best American-born closers? A short list would surely include Joe Nathan, Brad Lidge, and Jonathan Papelbon. Nathan was going to play, but he had to bail because of an injury, and the other two are tucked out of harm's way in their training camps.

I could go on. Once you get beyond Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt, our starters are very uninspiring (Jeremy Guthrie, Ted Lilly). Roy Halladay? Cliff Lee? Josh Beckett? Unavailable.

Other teams have their own problems. I already mentioned Pujols. Venezuela can't get Johan Santana, which Hugo Chavez is probably blaming on the Americans. But seriously, folks, the whole thing is off the track.

But even if we did have optimum circumstances, and everyone did have its best players, the US included, I suspect the American sporting public would still be yawning. I don't know what it is, but we have become frighteningly insular.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on He can be reached at

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