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A world-class March baseball experience in San Francisco

Korea vs. Japan in the finale of the 2009 WBC Photo: iccsports / flickr

I recently asked a serious Giants fan, “Are you psyched about the World Baseball Classic coming to San Francisco?” The question generated a blank expression. I continued, “It is the World Cup of baseball. They are playing the finals here, at AT&T Park, in March.” The fan asked, “What is the World Baseball Classic?”

Though it is the prime mover behind the World Baseball Classic, Major League Baseball is doing a spectacular job of stealthily slipping the WBC into San Francisco. You would think that Salman Rushdie is pitching, and that MLB is worried that promoting the WBC could prod fatwah violence.

Major League Baseball is not doing much to let us know of the possibility that the Cuban national team, Team Japan, Team Mexico, and Team USA — replete with many of the best baseball players in the world — will be playing tense, exciting games in San Francisco next month. March 17–18 are the semi-finals. March 19 is the final of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

In 2005, the International Olympic Committee dropped baseball from the Olympics. Outraged, insulted, and worried that baseball would lose ground around the world to basketball, soccer, and other team sports, Major League Baseball created the World Baseball Classic, which was first played in 2006.

In 2006 and 2009, the 16 teams that were invited to play were China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, the United States, Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico, Australia, Dominican Republic, Italy, and Venezuela. Japan won in both 2006 and 2009. Daisuke Matsuzaka was MVP of both tournaments (later pitching erratically for the Boston Red Sox; as of this writing, he is a free agent). Cuba was runner up in 2006. South Korea was runner up in 2009.

Which team is conspicuously absent from the list of glory? Team USA! In 2006, a team featuring Derek Jeter, Chase Utley, A-Rod, Mark Tiexiera, Vernon Wells, and Johnny Damon, among other filthy-rich luminaries, lost 8-6 to a team of no-names from Canada, lost to Japan, lost to South Korea, and failed to advance to the semifinals.

In 2009, Team USA lost to Venezuela twice, then lost to Japan in the semi-finals. In the final game, Japan beat South Korea at Dodger Stadium in front of a loud, flag-waving, nearly sold-out crowd to take home the trophy. The all-WBC team for 2009 included one player, Jimmy Rollins, from the USA (and included Cuba and Oakland A’s player Yoenis Cespedes).

Team USA’s combined record in WBCs is 7 wins, 7 losses. What mediocrity! And from the country that invented the game!

As of this writing, Team USA has announced some players committed to play for the 2013 team, including National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Andy Pettitte, Shane Victorino, the Giants’ Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon Phillips, along with Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins. The latter two might be seeking to wash away some of the shame from Team USA’s previous losses, of which they were a part.

For this is the major flaw with the time of year the WBC is played: right smack in the middle of spring training. Players with injuries, general managers and owners of Major League teams who don’t want their players to strain too much this early in the year, are all hesitant/reluctant/refusing to add their names and players to Team USA. Worse, the USA approach of throwing players onto a field and expecting them to quickly cohere into a world-class team spectacularly failed in 2006 and 2009.

Former Yankee manager Joe Torre will try to herd 2013’s collection of millionaire American cats into a cohesive ball club. Right now the Vegas oddsmakers have the Dominican Republic as a 2-1 favorite, with Japan and Team USA at 5-2, and Venezuela and South Korea at 10-1. Can Torre’s approach to the 2013 team change the outcome?
We will see.

Giants and A’s fans who are venturing to spring training can see Team USA in its qualifying round at Chase Field in Phoenix: March 8 vs. Mexico, March 9 vs. Italy, and March 10 vs. Canada.

If USA does well enough, it’s off to Miami to the second round of games. Then the WBC moves to AT&T for the semifinals and finals.
The games at China Basin should be intense, a wonderful baseball atmosphere. And we hope the playing field won’t be devoid of Americans.

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Steve Hermanos is the author of the new book, Orange Waves of Giants! The 2012 Championship Season. It is available at Books, Inc. on Chestnut Street at the front register. E-mail: steve@marinatimes.com