The games were often unwatchable. With pitchers limited in terms of both pitch count and pitch selection because of the early-in-Spring-Training timing of the tournament, every manager used a truckload of pitchers in every game. It was Russian Roulette. Throw enough guys out there in Spring Training and sooner or later, you’re going to be watching a guy who has batting-practice stuff, whose slider doesn’t slide, whose fastball isn’t, or whose curveball doesn’t. The results are not going to be pretty. And, there were more one-sided games than not: Korea 9, Chinese Taipei 0. Japan 14, Korea 2. Australia 17, Mexico 7. Mexico 14, South Africa 3. Mexico 16, Australia 1. Cuba 16, Mexico 4. USA 15, Venezuela 6. Venezuela 10, Italy 1. Puerto Rico 11, USA 1. USA 9, Nederlands 3. Korea 10, Venezuela 2.
Certain hitters and fielders plainly didn’t prepare for the games and looked awkward and decidedly un-starrish out there. This means you, Chipper Jones. Whoops, Oliver Perez. I’m looking right at you, too, Ichiro. (On Thursday, Ichiro failed to get down a late bunt that probably would have won a game for Japan against Korea. In terms of likelihood, think pigs flying.) Let’s not forget the entire team from the Dominican Republic, which looked listless at best and shamefully uninvolved at worst.
The players weren’t the only ones with mixed feelings about the tournament. Selig, no one’s idea of a gifted politician, failed to line up support for the WBC among the teams he’s made rich with Internet revenue sharing and huge media contracts. While general managers for the major league teams made the appropriate noises about supporting Chairman Bud and his vanity project, they rarely failed to add that, well, their guys weren’t quite ready for whatever reason and probably shouldn’t play.
The Yankees, in particular, actively discouraged their players from suiting up in the WBC. The Red Sox called back Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia when it looked like they might know someone staying at the team hotel who might have a hangnail, and the Mariners practically provoked an international incident when they heard that Ichiro was talking about pitching for the Japanese team.
Kevin Towers, the GM for the Padres, who contributed four players to three different WBC teams, could be heard complaining on ESPN during the live broadcast of one of the games that the thing had messed up his team. (No, Kevin, that would be you. But bad pub is bad pub, eh, Bud?) “It’s a no-win situation,” Tigers (five players in the WBC) manager Jim Leyland said over the weekend. “Some guys just want their players back and that’s how I feel also. I want our guys to spend some time together before opening day.”
This may doom the tournament. The only real alternatives are to play the tournament after the season, with a bunch of exhausted players, or to shut down the professional leagues in Japan, Korea and the United States in the middle of the regular season for a month. There is simply no way the WBC can take in enough money to convince the 50 or so plutocrats who’d be affected by this that this is a good idea. (Shutting down the league in mid-season, by the way, is exactly what Cuba did this year. But they only have one “owner” to answer to.)
OK, the games weren’t artistic masterpieces, but the fans, they made up for it in enthusiasm, right? Nope. Most of the games were played in front of half empty stadiums or worse. Canada and the USA couldn’t draw in Toronto when they weren’t playing each other, Mexico couldn’t draw in Mexico City, and so few fans turned up in Tokyo for the games that didn’t involve the Japanese team that you could have played them at a high school field and had room left over for a soccer practice. Los Angeles, which has the largest Korean population in the world outside of the Korean peninsula, couldn’t come close to filling Dodger Stadium for the Korea-Venezuela semi-final game. (The announced attendance was 43,378. Good news, Updike! Fiction survives your passing.) There were even empty seats in San Juan at tiny Hiram Bithorn stadium in San Juan when the Puerto Rican team played.
Partly, you had fans passing judgment on the nature of the teams. No Johan Santana for Venezuela or Albert Pujols for the Dominican. Mariano Rivera didn’t pitch for Panama. The guys who didn’t play for the United States would have kicked the ass of the guys who did. The USA team actually had Mark DeRosa at 1B in its semifinal game against Japan, and had to let Brian McCann hit against a lefty with the game on the line because of a lack of catching depth. Some of the teams — South Africa, China and Italy in particular — weren’t real national teams in any sense at all and would have struggled to win a good college league.
Then there are the ticket prices. Opening round in San Juan? $60. Upper deck in San Diego for the quarterfinals? $40. (Same price to see the Dodgers and the Padres from that perch in two weeks: $19.) For a second deck ticket to the finals at Dodger Stadium tonight: $138. Selig and his minions clearly miscalculated the demand for tickets, the prestige level of the games and the elasticity of fan wallets.
All in all, an ungainly mess. The victories by the Nederlands over the Dominicans were certainly memorable, and the Canada/USA game at the former Skydome in Toronto was post-season level for intensity. The Koreans were a revelation, and the games did introduce new young stars like Chapman and Dervish. But overall, fans, Americans in particular, didn’t passionately engage, attendance was poor and the play on the field poorer. Without a fix for what ailed the WBC 2009, it’s unlikely to service the Selig Administration in baseball.