Many don't like timing of Classic

Originally Published: January 24, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

So Barry Bonds won't be hitting cleanup for the United States of America this spring. We know that now, thanks to the miracle of barrybonds.com.

Barry Bonds
AP/Haraz N. GhanbariBarry Bonds hit five home runs in 42 at-bats last season.
But we've got good news for Barry. We'll let him bat cleanup on the one World Baseball Classic roster that Major League Baseball doesn't want you to see:

The All-Not-Playing-In-The-WBC-For-The-U.S.-of-A. Team.

Here's that lineup card:

David Eckstein SS
Scott Rolen 3B
Paul Konerko 1B
Barry Bonds DH
Gary Sheffield RF
Jim Edmonds CF
Brian Giles LF
Jeff Kent 2B
Jason Kendall C

Your pitching staff: Randy Johnson, Roy Oswalt, John Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, Trevor Hoffman, B.J. Ryan, Jason Isringhausen, Kyle Farnsworth, Derrick Turnbow, Scott Eyre.

And we didn't even mention our bench -- Todd Helton, Travis Hafner, Torii Hunter, Troy Glaus, Khalil Greene, Brian Schneider and Chone Figgins.

OK, so not all of those players have asked out of the WBC. Some were never invited. Others have injuries to heal from. A few have personal circumstances that make it difficult for them to commit.

Nevertheless, the exit of Bonds from the WBC is yet one more haymaker to the kisser of an event that we always thought could -- and should -- be one of baseball's most glorious achievements.

We want to love this little tournament. We want it to be a goose bump kind of spectacle on the field. We want it to be a raging success off the field. We want life around the baseball-playing earth to be paralyzed in its grip as it heads for its dramatic climax.

But how come, with not even six weeks left until the first pitch, that isn't the vibe the WBC is giving off at the moment?

We find ourselves focusing more on the players who aren't playing than the players who are. And that's not good.

We find ourselves listening to one baseball person after another gripe about the timing of this event. And that's not good.

We find ourselves wondering why so many questions haven't been answered, why ticket sales have been so lukewarm, why Danny Haren qualifies for the team from the Netherlands, why the semifinal games have been scheduled on a March Madness Saturday during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament -- and several thousand other things.

But as we mull the deeper meaning of Bonds' withdrawal from the WBC, the biggest question of all is this:

Is Bonds' exit a sign that players -- particularly American players -- are starting to look for reasons not to play instead of reasons to play?

"I don't think the players are real big on this, to be honest," says one GM, who can't speak publicly because baseball has ordered its employees to spout nothing but positives on the WBC. "A lot of them don't feel like it's a good idea to have to start [spring training] Feb. 1 and be ready to play real games by the first week in March. And I think some of these guys, as they're getting older, don't feel like it's worth the risk. A guy like Bonds, why would he risk what he's trying to do to go play eight games?"

Excellent question.

Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris, says this decision has zilch to do with that Babe Ruth milestone Barry is chasing this season. And it isn't really about health, either, Borris says.

But he would rather Bonds express this himself. So if you want to hear his version, you can find it (along with a cyber-postcard from the Dominican Republic) at http://barrybonds.mlb.com/players/bonds_barry/journal/latest.html.

Borris also downplays the suggestion that Bonds' pullout is symptomatic of an ever-swelling ballplayer revolt.

"We represent many players who will be representing several different countries," Borris says. "And they all appear to be feeling very excited and patriotic about the chance to take part in the World Baseball Classic. They all feel this type of international competition is long overdue in this sport."

Fortunately for baseball, that is how many of these players feel. Unfortunately, for the home of the brave and the land of the free, the ones who feel that most passionately will be playing for the Dominican and for Venezuela and for nations other than the country that happens to be the host.

"It definitely seems to be a bigger deal for players from these other countries," says one assistant GM. "I'm not sure what we can do about that."

As for those American players who continue to grumble behind the scenes, the same assistant says: "I just wish they'd be honest. Do they want to play or not?"

Regrettably, there are a lot more "nots" than baseball is letting on. And it's becoming increasingly obvious what that's all about:

The calendar.

"I like the idea," says one GM. "I just don't like the timing. And I think that more players, the closer we get to spring training, don't like the timing, either.

"It's a great idea -- if you're not associated with a team. It's a great idea if you're Bud Selig or somebody in the commissioner's office. But if you're associated with a team and your best player is going to break his leg, you'd rather it happen on your own watch -- not theirs. If we lose our No. 1 starter or our best player for the year, we can't replace those guys, and it would be a devastating blow to what we're trying to do."

Baseball's answer is that there is no good time to hold this event. And in a sport that now runs from Valentine's Day to Halloween, that's true.

But the response by GMs is that, at least if a player gets hurt in November, there's a heck of a chance he'll be back by April. And, in November, while some players will have been off for four weeks, "that's no different from the Pro Bowl," says one GM.

All of us have a responsibility to [promote] the betterment of the game and do what's good for the game, and we all understand that. But at the end of the day, I still wish they were doing this in November.
An anonymous GM

February and March, on the other hand, are months that players -- especially American players -- are conditioned to using to ease into this grind. So no one is sure how their bodies will react to having to hit that zero-to-70-mph gas pedal a month sooner than normal.

"What a lot of players are saying is: 'What the hell are we doing?'" says an official of one perennial contender. "Everyone in baseball wanted this after the World Series, not in spring training. What kind of competition can this be when pitchers are on pitch counts and guys aren't in shape?

"The single biggest problem is that this was an idea not formulated by the baseball people. It came from the bureaucrats. I guarantee you that if you took a vote of general managers today, it would be at least 27 to 3 against holding it in March."

But whether that's true or not, it's a little late to retake that vote. This thing will happen, ready or not. And it will happen, whether GMs or players or agents like it or not. And it will happen, whether Barry Bonds or Randy Johnson or John Smoltz is on the field or not.

And once we get to the semifinals and finals, this will be great baseball, no matter who's left on the field to play it. Think Game 7, followed by another Game 7, followed by another Game 7, back to back to back.

But for that grand finale to mean all that it should, baseball needs to construct a bigger and better crescendo than what we're now witnessing. And for that to happen, it's time for the people who really believe in this event to take charge -- and remind everyone else that, sometimes, you have to pull out of your own little orbit and focus on what's good for the sport that employs you.

Unfortunately, that concept is turning out to be a tough sell for some folks.

"All of us have a responsibility to [promote] the betterment of the game and do what's good for the game, and we all understand that," says one skeptical GM. "But at the end of the day, I still wish they were doing this in November."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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