- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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You know about the tournament. You know it will take place in March. You know paranoid fans and media fear that players are going to fall to injury like ducks in a carnival booth -- as if Jeff Kent spends his spring trainings crocheting.
But there are plenty of World Baseball Classic matters that remain either undecided or unclear to the intrigued fan. Here are nine innings of questions about the WBC that are still lurking as 2006 approaches:
1. What's the deal with Cuba?
Like it or not, the U.S. has an economic embargo against Cuba, and this particular administration is enforcing it more strongly than, say, the Clinton clan who green-lighted the home-and-home Orioles series in 1998 and 1999. The ban blindsided WBC organizers. As recently as the winter meetings, the union's Gene Orza said within 20 seconds that he was "fairly confident," "very, very confident" and "pretty confident" that Cuba would participate -- because, among other reasons, Cuba has been allowed to participate in U.S.-hosted Olympics in 1984 and 1996. (Though Cuba boycotted the '84 Los Angeles Games.) U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth, the former MLB commissioner, has called upon the Bush administration to reconsider its decision because, he claims, it will damage future U.S. efforts to host Olympics. On the WBC side, Cuba's baseball majesty has eroded -- it would not be among the top three favorites -- but the nation's inclusion would provide a cap-tip to amateur baseball history as well as some juicy political intrigue.
2. Why can some players choose which country to represent?
The WBC is using Olympic-style rules to determine team eligibility -- in other words, to represent a country players must be a citizen of, a legal resident of, or born in that nation; or have had a parent who fulfills one of those last two criteria. Many players have had choices, including somewhat surprising cases like Craig Biggio and John Smoltz, both of whom are representing the U.S. but could have played for Italy. Alex Rodriguez, of course, is the most celebrated case; with the choice to play for either the United States or the Dominican Republic, a difficult decision both personally and publicly, he decided to make no decision at all, and not play. (Then again, why people had been giving A-Rod a hard time for considering playing for the Dominican Republic -- where he lived as a child and still has significant ties -- while suburban Philadelphian Mike Piazza commits to Italy to a chorus of, "Isn't that nice," is beyond our understanding at the moment.)
3. Who determines who makes the teams?
The country's national federation in cooperation with any professional leagues, though team managers will make many or all of the final roster-type decisions. Players under contract with an MLB club, however, must be approved by World Baseball Classic, Inc., which is comprised of officials from MLB and the Players Association. This is where things get laughably murky.
4. So why can't Jorge Posada play?
For months, both MLB and union officials have professed that it is the player's choice, not his team's, whether he can play in the World Baseball Classic. Well, that apparently isn't quite true: Teams can appeal to WBC Inc. to hold back a specific player because of special circumstances (indispensability to team, extra injury risk, and so on). This is what the Yankees -- who hold the WBC and revenue sharing in roughly the same regard -- did with many of their players, including Posada, who had wanted to suit up for Puerto Rico. (Though why Posada is more vital to the Yankees than Jason Varitek is to the Red Sox, or Ivan Rodriguez is to the Tigers, has yet to be fully explained, something that has riled more than one opposing GM.) Yankees GM Brian Cashman said that his club had filed similar petitions with other players, and while he didn't name names, it's certainly notable that Randy Johnson is not participating, either. (It doesn't take a multiple-shooter conspiracist to figure that the Yankees are being cut a few breaks for finally agreeing to play in the first place, and sending Derek Jeter.) Few other protests have been leaked, but it is known that the Mariners have been trying to keep 19-year-old phenom Felix Hernandez from representing Venezuela. GM Bill Bavasi told the Seattle Times last week, "I won't sleep easily until I know for sure."
5. How much will the WBC impact spring training?
For some fans, quite a bit. Don't trek to Tampa to see Jeter if he's going to be in Arizona with Team USA. For the players, they will report to their major-league team's camps in mid- to late February as usual. (Two codicils there: All players, presumably pitchers, may arrive early for preliminary workouts; and Asian players, whose WBC training begins Feb. 26 -- a week earlier than folks in North America -- will not report to major-league spring training until after their team completes WBC play.) This does mean that players from powerhouse countries such as the United States and the Dominican Republic might very well not play a spring training game with their major-league teams until after the March 20 WBC final. The upside of this, several major-league executives have noted, is that while stars play meaningful games for their countries, major-league teams will be able to give less-entrenched players far more playing time, and get a better chance to evaluate them.
6. What if players get hurt? Are teams protected?
One of the tallest hurdles to get the WBC going was securing insurance for player contracts; teams insisted on it, quite rightfully. Any team whose player gets hurt while participating in the event -- though I can't wait till someone falls while carrying deer meat after workouts -- will have its financial obligations to the player covered by insurance. Of course, replacing the player's skills is up to the team, and that is the primary risk all organizations incur.
7. There'd better be pitch limits, right?
Of course -- particularly since pitchers might try to overexert themselves in competition for their country. Just as teams devise increasing limits for their pitchers for the first few spring training games, the WBC will set limits for pitchers both for each game (starters could go just 45-60 pitches, relievers 20, etc.) and each round (relievers couldn't appear in more than two games or throw more than 35 pitches combined, etc.). These limits, which have yet to be set by the WBC Technical Committee, will probably inch up with each round of the tournament, just as spring training limits do as pitchers' arms get stronger. Some WBC managers have professed a desire to have their pitching coaches adhere to individual training regimens designed by each pitcher's major-league organization.
8. What if a player fails a drug test?
All players on preliminary and final rosters will be subject to Olympic-style drug testing, which is generally considered more stringent than recent procedures adopted by Major League Baseball and the Players Association. A player failing a test would result in expulsion from the WBC and possible future international competition. However, it would not bring suspension from any MLB games or in any way affect him with respect to MLB's new anti-doping agreement. MLB and union officials have both said that this is because the WBC testing will be done outside the scope of their agreement, through different procedures and by different personnel. Can't wait for this one to hit the headlines, can you?
9. Is this the only year the event is planned?
No. Baseball officials have long expected to hold the event every four years, a la the Olympics. But don't be surprised if the next WBC is in only three years, in 2009, before going on a quadrennial schedule -- baseball would rather not bump up with the Winter Olympics, which are in 2010, 2014, etc. Much will depend on how this first event comes off. And how these nine questions are ultimately answered.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
With a number of matters that remain either undecided or unclear, here are nine innings of questions about the World Baseball Classic.