LOS ANGELES – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The baseball season is nearing.
You can see it in the starting lineups that are being marched out each day in spring training games. They are looking more and more like the lineups you will see next week when the season begins. And yet still the games are not as compelling as the World Baseball Classic games were the previous few weeks.
So, the time for ripping the World Baseball Classic is over.
It has its issues. General managers dread it because they worry about a star player getting injured. Players shrug it off because they believe — correctly — that it holds no meaning close to the postseason. Even management and the players’ union seem a little lukewarm on the thing. And it probably doesn’t get nearly the attention in the United States that it deserves because it goes up against the NCAA Tournament.
But it beats the living daylights out of spring training baseball, the version we saw three weeks ago as well as the incarnation we are seeing now. And for this reason, all in baseball, so worried about bringing in the next generation of fans with all the pace-of-game rule changes, need to start emphasizing the event.
Maybe you watched your favorite team in some spring training games.
New York Yankees fans recently got to see ace Masahiro Tanaka twirl five scoreless innings and first baseman Greg Bird hit a couple home runs. New York Mets fans saw Zack Wheeler throw five shutout innings. Boston Red Sox fans watched inspired play from a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval. No question, it whets the appetite for the regular season.
However, still there are players in a game that may not play in the big leagues this season, players whose names you hear for the first time, and it takes some air out of the balloon.
Then there was the WBC. Maybe it doesn’t get all the biggest stars right now. No Mike Trout, no Bryce Harper and no Noah Syndergaard in this last one. But the games were played with near All-Star-team-caliber players. They were played passionately by players who cared about competing for their country. And the games were so much more compelling with players who deeply care about their performance because of their patriotism.
Maybe you got a chance to see the World Baseball Classic finale last Wednesday night, and you glimpsed something special. Team USA, behind six scintillating no-hit innings from Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman, beat Puerto Rico 8-0 to capture its first title in the fourth tournament.
The Americans popped their USA jerseys and celebrated as if they won a playoff series. They took a victory lap around Dodger Stadium to thank those in the 51,000-plus crowd who remained — riveted — by the performance.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” said Team USA outfielder Christian Yelich of the Miami Marlins.
Like tearful Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, many of those on Team Puerto Rico stayed on the field and consoled one another rather than retreating to their clubhouse. They applauded the Americans, many of them their Major League Baseball teammates. And the players from Team USA came to them, between the third base dugout and the third base line, and embraced them.
The Major League Baseball postseason has none of this, but isn’t there room, too, for some of the collegial feelings we saw here?
The signature play of the tournament was the Orioles’ Adam Jones of Team USA robbing Baltimore teammate Manny Machado of a home run in the Americans’ (virtual) quarterfinal win over the Dominican Republic. This was spectacular by any measure in any game. And it was cute how they tipped their hats to one another right after the play and something Orioles fans will be enthralled to hear and read about when they are back in camp.
The WBC is not pretending to be the playoffs. But isn’t it better than Grapefruit League action to see a lineup in which the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton is batting eighth for Team USA against Dominican Republic starter Ervin Santana of the Minnesota Twins? And playing in a game where the participants feel it is truly worth celebrating after a victory?
“Now, after what we’ve done, the way everybody is buzzing about it on Twitter, and all of the attention it’s getting, you’re going to see everybody in the league want to play in the next one,” Team USA reliever Pat Neshek of the Philadelphia Phillies said after the final. “Everyone’s going to want to be part of this.
“So maybe now the WBC has some momentum. Because it’s only played every four years, we’ll see if that is sustained to the next one.”
When a spring training game ends, many of the starters already have left the stadium. We know they are excited about the coming season, and we’ll see that when it starts. But even they aren’t crazy about spring training games.
The WBC was exciting and a nice change of pace. Let’s hope it gets more attention next time.