Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig may have given us the All-Star game tie, extorted the new owners of the Houston Astros to move to the American League, and tried to put the Angels, Dodger, A's, and Giants in the same division in the late 1990s, but he also gave us the World Baseball Classic. Even though not all American fans have embraced the WBC, maybe they should, and maybe this will be the year.
Play got underway in Seoul, South Korea this morning, with Israel (yes Israel) defeating host Korea 2-1 in 10 innings. And while you are thinking how it's possible that Israel is even in the tournament, they went out and defeated Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) this evening (tomorrow afternoon in Korea) 15-7. While most of the Israeli congregation has likely never even set foot in the Holy Land, the team is made up of several players not only of Jewish heritage, but also major league experience. Ike Davis, Nate Freiman, and Sam Fuld, who all played with Oakland among other clubs, and Ryan Lavarnway, who wore a Red Sox uniform, top the list. Jason Marquis (Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Nationals, Diamondbacks, Twins, Padres, Reds) was the game one starter. The Korean contingent only has one current major leaguer—Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh, and Dodger fans may remember Chin-Lung Hu (Hu's on first?). Hu is on the Chinese Taipei squad.
There are 16 teams in the World Baseball Classic. They are divided into four pools of four teams each. Each team will play the other teams in their pool once each, and then the top two teams from each pool will advance to the second round. Israel, Korea, and Chinese Taipei (called that for political reasons) are all part of Pool A, along with the Netherlands, perhaps another team you may not get all that excited about. The Dutch team however, also includes players from the island of Curacao, which is home to major leaguers such as Xander Bogearts, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorious, and Jurickson Profar (Dodgers closer Kenly Jansen is from there, too, but isn't playing in the WBC). With Israel already 2-0, they along with the Netherlands could be the two teams to advance out of Pool A, even though the Asian teams have the home-field advantage.
With a few exceptions, more traditional baseball powers make up the other pools. Japan, Cuba, China, and Australia make up Pool B with games in Tokyo. The United States is in Pool C with Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia with games in Miami, and Pool D in Guadalajara, has Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Italy (okay, Italy isn't exactly baseball central, but has some good players).
There have been three previous editions of the World Baseball Classic. Japan won the first two, the Dominican Republic won last time, and the United States has never finished in the top three. Team USA is in a tough pool, but figures to be maybe the second favorite along with the Dominican to advance. Venezuela and Puerto Rico will be tough to beat, but the Americans could finally emerge this time.
If you watch a WBC game, the crowds, especially those outside the US, act like its World Cup Soccer. They play muscial instruments, have their own cheers, and sing and dance throughout the game. They are into it. Americans are more blasé, and up to this point, so are the players. Major league teams are more worried about the guys getting hurt, and players who haven't experienced having the name of their country on their chest, don't get excited about it. That is, until they try it. This year, the following players are on the roster for the United States: Andrew McCutchen, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, and Eric Hosmer, just to name a few. Chris Archer and Danny Duffy, and Marcus Stroman are probably the best starting pitchers. Andrew Miller and David Robertson make up the back end of the bullpen. Their games are this weekend—Friday vs. Colombia (Jose Quintana, Julio Teheran), Saturday against the Domincan Republic (Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Bautista, Gregory Polanco, et. al.), and Sunday against Canada (Freddie Freeman, Ryan Demspter, and believe it or not, Eric Gagne).
There's nothing wrong with watching a nice spring training game on a lazy afternoon in Arizona or Florida, but the World Baseball Classic will shake things up and add some intensity. While it will be going on at the same time as the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the WBC is a March Madness of its own. This year might be America's best chance, but even if Team USA falls short again, you are going to see some good baseball, and even though its still in some ways a tune-up for the majors, it's not your typical spring training.
New rules: You've probably heard, but Major League Baseball has adopted about a half-dozen rule changes to try to improve “pace of play”. While trying to speed up the replay process, or keeping coaches in their little box where they belong is fine, the powers that be eliminated a little ritual that has been in place for literally hundreds of years. Instead of throwing four wide ones for an intentional walk, all a manager has to do is hold up four fingers, and the umpire will award the batter first base. While it sounds logical that this would speed up the game, mlb.com points out that there were 932 intentional walks in 4856 games last year (There were actually 2428 games last year, because it takes two teams to play a game, but still 932 walks isn't very many). It takes about 30 seconds to issue an intentional walk, so that means 466 minutes were wasted. That sounds like a lot, but that's over 26 weeks. That's roughly 18 minutes a week, and assuming about 90 games a week (15 a day for six days), thats 0.2 minutes per game or 12 seconds. Nice going.
Stass-o-meter: The Stassi brothers continue to make their cases to be in the major leagues this season, and have sort of a home run derby going. Brock Stassi has hit two spring training homers for Philadelphia, and Max has one for Houston. Brock also got a nice endorsement from his manager Pete Mackanin in a Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia interview this week.
Pitch clock: The Yuba City Bears have a countdown clock on their website, ticking down the precious days, hours, minutes, and seconds until their first-ever game. It's three hours off.
It's good to be the King: Congratulations to Sacramento Kings broadcaster Gary Gerould, who called his 2500th game with that franchise last night. Most of those games were losses, which is too bad, because that detracts from the attention that he truly deserves. Gerould, now in his 32nd season, is a class act, and a great broadcaster. I got to sit next to him for 11 of those years, and didn't realize how much I took from him until I listened to some of my own calls, even doing baseball. Gerould, now 76, told KXTV (Channel 10) that he has no intention of retiring any time soon, which is the best news that club could get, even if it does get a top selection in the upcoming draft.