U.S. needs a little more incentive

Originally Published: March 19, 2006
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- The biggest challenge the World Baseball Classic faces in this country is not spring training conflicts, indifferent major-leaguers or suspect umpiring. It's competing for attention with the NCAA basketball tournament.

This was especially the case here Saturday when the WBC went head to head with the tournament. While Cuba played the Dominican Republic and Korea played Japan in the WBC at Petco Park, Washington played Illinois and UCLA played Alabama in the NCAA tourney at San Diego State University. Unable to decide which event to cover, I did the only sensible thing -- I went to the baseball games and the basketball sub-regional.

Team Korea fans
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonThe large Korean contingent chanted and pounded Thunderstix from beginning to end Saturday.
Some observations from a very long but enjoyable day of international baseball and college basketball ...

You know what the WBC needs? I mean, besides better umpires? A tournament bracket. The bracket not only is the essence of the NCAA tournament, it has become so much a part of our culture that I think if you don't fill one out by the first game of the tournament, the IRS will come after you. In fact, I'm not sure how I'm doing in my bracket yet because I had my accountant fill it out for me so I won't get audited in case Bradley reaches the Final Four.

The WBC has pools, which just don't cut it. The biggest problem is teams keep playing each other over and over. How would your bracket look if Bucknell had to beat Arkansas three times before finally advancing? Yet, that's what Korea had to do. Korea beat Japan in the first round. Korea beat Japan in the second round. And Korea still had to play Japan again Saturday in the semifinal and it finally lost, 6-0. That was Korea's first defeat in the WBC, and it knocked the country out of the tournament.

Such things are always a possibility in a pool format, but it could have been better avoided had the semifinalists been matched against teams from the opposite pool.

By the way, you might have noticed that Korea and Japan do not like each other. Ichiro said before the tournament that he not only wanted to beat Korea and the other Asian teams, he wanted to beat them so badly it would take them 30 years to catch up. Korea, naturally, drilled him when it had the chance. And when Korea beat Japan in the second round, Jae Wong Seo emphatically planted his country's flag in the mound as if he was establishing possession.

Duke-North Carolina may be a passionate rivalry, but to be as intense as Japan-Korea, the Tar Heels would have had to actually invade Durham at some point.

You know why Team USA failed to reach the semifinal round? They didn't link arms in the dugout like the college teams do on the bench. My Huskies did this against Illinois in the closing minutes, and it made all the difference in their three-point victory -- Dee Brown would have hit that trey if the Huskies had been sitting apart on the bench. And if A-Rod, Jason Varitek, Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens had linked arms, the U.S. would have scored the tying run in the ninth inning against Mexico.

Domincan Republic fans
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe Dominican fans waved flags and played music in an attempt to inspire their team to victory.
I talked to several fans who complained that the U.S. team didn't care enough about whether it won or lost. The other countries, meanwhile, clearly cared passionately about winning. I wrote a column a while back about how the Cubans would fare poorly in the WBC because they just don't have the talent. I forgot, however, to take into consideration the edge their players have by being in midseason form, by playing as a team and by caring deeply about their performance. Johnny Damon laughed it up with the first baseman in the ninth inning of the U.S. loss to Mexico. You can bet Cuba did not take any of its games so lightly.

The Cubans didn't play their best against the Dominican Republic -- they made three errors and let a routine popup drop safely for a single -- but they did enough of the little things right when it mattered (turning three double plays, sacrificing, and moving the runners over) to beat the Dominicans, the team I picked to win it all, 3-1.

Cuba, by the way, is just killing my WBC pool.

The passion of the NCAA tournament is such that even a cynical sportswriter couldn't help but stand up and start singing along with the pep band when my alma mater rallied back against Illinois (I was sitting in the stands, not the press box). Surprisingly, though, the fans seemed even more passionate at the Korea-Japan game than those at the Washington-Illinois game. The Cubans and Dominicans held dance parties while the Koreans pounded their Thunderstix, shouted their chants, stomped their feet and waved their flags without pause -- and that was during a 45-minute rain delay when they trailed by six runs.

That's one of the things we've learned the past two weeks. American fans may care far more about the NCAA tournament, but the WBC is a very big deal to a lot of fans elsewhere in the world. That bodes well for the WBC's long-term success. And after seeing how things played out here, the U.S. team will take things more seriously next time.

Or maybe the U.S. just needs a little more incentive. The Koreans received exemptions from military service for playing so well, which is a contract incentive not even Scott Boras could negotiate. A required six-month tour in Iraq may be a bit extreme for not reaching the semifinals, but it certainly would make us care a bit more next time.

(Also, I suggest next time the U.S. play Ken Griffey Jr. in center field, not Ken Griffey Sr. I mean, really. How much did Junior eat over the winter?)

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com