Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Team Snooze-S-A

The other day, I made an unpatriotic claim on Twitter. "I would be fine if Team USA failed to advance from the first round," I wrote. "Most boring team in the #WBC if you ask me."

I didn't get much pushback to this obviously outrageous claim, which must mean I didn't make it strongly enough. (It certainly couldn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm still in the triple digits in Twitter followers.) This can only be remedied with a full blog post on the topic. And that topic is, "I have literally gone through the rosters of all 16 World Baseball Classic teams, and without exception, the USA is the least interesting team in the tournament."

To me, the World Baseball Classic is fun because it showcases talent from all around the world—much of which is often not on display to the American fan. As the WBC proves, there are major-league-caliber players who don't play in the major leagues. Shinnosuke Abe hit two home runs this morning to lead Team Japan to the top seed in its pool. A squat catcher and onetime Nippon Professional Baseball MVP, he would be a beast on any continent. And while they have been eliminated from the tourney, it's hard not to daydream about which players from Team Cuba will be playing in the major leagues in a few years, as 2009 Team Cuba headliners Yoenis Céspedes and Aroldis Chapman now are. (Personally, I couldn't stop seeing ace Ismel Jiménez in a Red Sox uniform.)

Certainly, the exotic is erotic, but there are also plenty of parochial fans who just care about the Blue Jays or Padres. For them, the WBC offers the random European countries that often serve as showcases for minor-league systems. I've particularly enjoyed watching the Netherlands in this year's event, featuring the exploits of Red Sox phenom Xander Bogaerts and the Orioles' Jonathan Schoop. (Soon enough, even the casual baseball fan won't have to look up how to spell those two names.) Most fans get to glimpse their team's future in action only a few times a year, in September and during the rare televised spring training game. The WBC does them one better by giving these prospects a starring role.

After watching these players, how can you turn the dial over to Team USA, which is full of good-but-not-great players whom we're going to get to see 162 times this summer and whom we've seen hundreds of times in the past? David Wright is nice and all, but he's a bit overexposed in that New York media market. The bullpen is full of the anonymous cast of characters that comprise most teams' setup corps: Jeremy Affeldt, Luke Gregerson, Mitchell Boggs. I mean no disrespect to these players—they are fun to watch in the major leagues when the stakes are higher, and they are more skilled at baseball than most others—but they're so familiar. In a nutshell, they're not why we watch the WBC. They bring no value added.

I admit you could have this same complaint about the Dominican or Venezuelan rosters, and I do, to some extent. But what makes them merely "meh" rather than flat-out dull is that at least they are truly national all-star teams. Indeed, for many Latin-American countries, the WBC is a serious matter, and success in baseball is a major part of national pride. This brings almost all their major-league stars out of the woodwork and into WBC camp. In contrast, only one of the top five Americans in bWAR in 2012 (Ryan Braun) is on Team USA. But there are also so many eligible American major-leaguers that Team USA will never have to dip into its minor-league talent pool, despite the exciting possibilities that that presents. The result is a roster with only a handful of America's many possible superstars supported by a bunch of average or replacement-level players. In other words, the result is not an all-star team, nor a team of scrappy underdogs. It's exactly the talent distribution of a typical, but random and faceless, major-league team. If I wanted to watch that, I would just tune into a spring training game featuring my major-league team. Again, there is absolutely no value added to watching the WBC for Americans used to MLB.

It also doesn't help Team USA's appeal that they seem to be the one team uninterested in winning the WBC. Joe Torre has been criticized for not putting his heart—or the full talent of his roster—into his managing. And while I'm not as militant about WBC draft dodgers as some, their reluctance did set the tone very early for Team USA—that these were more akin to exhibition games than to the World Cup. Whether it's passion for their recently deceased leader or the promise of freedom from military service, it's clear that the Latin-American and Asian teams bring more of a sense of urgency and all-out-ness to their play. Heck, even for the European minor-league collectives, there's a thirst that comes from wanting to prove themselves against rosters stacked with major leaguers; these teams are at least fun to root for because we all love an upset.

Oddly enough for a country that is often seen as fanatically patriotic, when it comes to baseball, our love for country may never eclipse our regional loyalties to the local nine. Perhaps that's appropriate in a country that sometimes places its faith more in corporations than in its own government, and in a country as sectionally polarized as we are now. But more likely it's just that, to Americans, the WBC isn't yet a prestigious, or even very competitive, event. It has had two championship games, as opposed to MLB's 108 World Series. As long as that's true, the WBC will primarily be about scouting, gawking, and enjoying baseball for baseball's sake. That means looking beyond the faces we have grown accustomed to.

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