- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If you were too busy focusing on the announcement of that Gonzaga-Xavier pairing Sunday night, you missed something great.
U.S. versus Japan. World Baseball Classic. Game on the line every pitch for about an hour and a half. Japan's game-winning run flashing on, then off the scoreboard in the eighth. Junior Griffey, followed by A-Rod, up there with the bases jammed in the ninth.
This was everything the WBC was supposed to be. Stop-whatever-you're-doing tension. Call-in-the-U.N.-Security-Council controversy. And, most of all, great baseball.
But are enough people seeing it? Are enough people talking about it? Shouldn't this event be bigger, better, more fun, more impactful than it is?
C'mon, even Bud Selig has to know that deep in the classified section of his brain -- in that place where he files his real feelings about stuff like Barry Bonds, his good friends in Congress and people who worship the NFL.
So as always, we'd like to help, absolutely free of charge. We'd like to propose a way to make the WBC the world-class showcase extravaganza it was devised to be.
We have a plan. We've run it by a bunch of people on the spring-training trail this month. There hasn't been one negative, boy-are-you-an-idiot reaction. Which might be an all-time first. So here's what we would do if we were in charge of the WBC:
1. Make South Africa and Italy Play Their Way In
If the NCAA can hold play-in games, why can't the WBC? So next time around, we'd take the eight countries that didn't advance beyond Round 1 and throw them into a qualifying round. Only two of them would survive. We'd hold this round right after the season, but we're flexible on that part (and, in fact, on every part).
2. Get Down to Four Teams by the End of Spring Training
Anyone who has spent 20 minutes watching a spring-training game this month knows it has turned into a cross between a travesty and outright consumer fraud, with Instructional League lineups masquerading as actual big-league teams. It's clear now the WBC shouldn't be yanking players away from their teams for more than a week in March. So we're proposing the 10 survivors be split into two five-team pools for the March Madness portion of the WBC. The top two in each pool would emerge to produce our WBC final four -- and lead to
3. The All-Star Week Grand Finale
Here's how we envision shining the light of the world on the awesome conclusion to the WBC: Bring the WBC final four to the site of the All-Star Game in July and turn this into a week of The Greatest Players And Teams On Earth. We're talking about a one-week all-star break, and we envision something like this:
Monday: Futures Game
Tuesday: Home Run Derby
Wednesday: All-Star Game
Thursday: WBC semifinals
Friday: WBC championship game
In a week with no other major sporting events going on anywhere, what better way could there be to pound that percussion section and showcase the best of the best in this sport on every conceivable level?
"You know," said one owner, "you might have something there."
"It's not perfect," said one baseball official. "But it's better than what we have now."
"We'd get a week off at the All-Star break?" asked a player with one career All-Star at-bat. "You'd have no trouble selling the players on that."
So there. How's that for a consensus?
It isn't perfect. We're the first to admit that. But there's no way to make this event perfect -- not in a sport for which the journey from spring training through the postseason lasts 8½ months. So let's take a look at the pros and cons:
1. You Can't Build Interest, Momentum or Team Chemistry Round by Round
We recognize that teams of all-stars don't feel much like "teams" when they first show up in the same locker room. So holding the WBC in its present format allows for 2½ weeks of bonding opportunities. It also allows the event to sell itself to some extent just because it's continuous. If you get sucked in early on, you're theoretically hooked.
But there's a counter-argument. By the time teams reach our final four, just the stakes alone should provide all the bonding incentive these guys should need. And baseball is such an individual sport, does chemistry even matter at that point, especially in a lose-and-you're-out final-four format? Uh, in a word: noway.
And whatever appeal this event would lose in lack of continuity, we can guarantee would be overcome by sheer lack of distractions for the semis and finals. We'd bet A-Rod's paycheck, in fact, that the semifinal ratings in July would crush the ratings for this year's semis -- dubiously scheduled on the first Saturday of the NCAA hoops festival.
2. A One-Week All-Star Break Is Too Long
We've heard a couple of mild arguments to this effect: A week off doesn't work in baseball. Teams would complain if they lose dates in July. You'd have to lengthen the season. Yadayadayada.
Hey, it all can be overcome. Players we've surveyed would love a week off to recharge. Yeah, those July dates make money -- but we're talking one series, for half the teams. And the WBC ratings should be so much bigger in July, MLB might be able to reimburse everybody with all the extra money it would rake in. So what about those schedule issues? It looks possible to us for the season to be compacted into the same time frame, just by lopping other off-days. But if it means starting the season a couple of days earlier to make the WBC work, what's the big deal?
1. Zero Competition
Our biggest gripe about the WBC criticism we've heard this year is that too many people are confusing "bad timing" with "bad event." This is a great event. It's just buried under the weight of the March sports calendar. But moving the WBC final four crescendo to July wipes out every sports-related distraction we can think of, except maybe a hot beach-volleyball game.
The WBC should be baseball's signature event. But right now, it's not just competing with the college-hoop frenzy. It's competing with another beloved baseball event -- spring training -- for the attention of the people who ought to love it most.
Spring training shouldn't have to compete with the WBC. The WBC shouldn't have to compete with spring training. The last thing baseball ought to be doing here is competing with itself. How complicated is that? But what's the competition in July -- the first two rounds of the Cialis Western Open? We'll take our chances.
2. Save Spring Training
It's hard to say who was doing more griping about the sorry state of spring training last week -- the managers and GMs whose players had bailed for the WBC, or the fans who were paying real money for the right to watch Kelly Stinnett hitting third for the Yankees. We don't want to rehash all the issues the WBC has created for spring training. We've already vented on that topic. But spring training is too hallowed and important a time in the baseball year to be given short shrift like this. If the March portion of the WBC were over in a week, as it would be in our plan, the commish would be hearing much less grumbling.
3. Everybody's In Shape
The championship of the WBC shouldn't be decided by pitchers who are still on pitch counts, or hitters who aren't ready to hit a breaking ball. But that's how it will be decided this year. Move the finale to July, and we've taken care of that issue. Period.
4. Put the "Break" Back in All-Star Break
We didn't set out to solve any other problems when we first began floating our WBC idea. But while we're on a roll, what the heck. We can also address a legitimate complaint we've heard about the current all-star format: It's waaaay too frenzied.
From late flights into town Sunday night to a marathon workout/Derby day Monday to a late night at the park Tuesday to those hectic flights out of town afterward, the All-Star "break" has turned into an exhausting burnout fest for everyone involved.
So we can fix that issue, too. Push the All-Star Game back to Wednesday, which works fine if the break is going to last a week. Give the Futures Game and the All-Star Gala their much-deserved spotlight Monday. Let players have Monday to fly to the site. Then start rolling out one marquee baseball show after another, Tuesday through Friday. And even the handful of players who would have to hang around for all of them would then have a weekend to recover.
If that's too much to ask, no problem. Keep the All-Star festivities the way they are. Play the WBC semis and finals on Wednesday and Thursday. Then pick up the season Saturday. As we said from the beginning, we're flexible. On all of this.
We're open to any and all suggestions on this concept. You want to bring eight countries to the All-Star Game site and play into the weekend? Sure. You want to bring just the two finalists in? Cool. You want some other format to determine how teams get to our final four? Be our guests.
We simply want two components of this plan to stay in place: (1) Mess with spring training as little as possible., and (2) give a tremendous sporting event its rightful spot on that perfect July stage.
As currently devised, we already know this about the WBC: It can't ever be the must-see event it should be in March.
Too many basketballs dribbling around in our brains. Too many distractions, even within baseball itself, to draw not merely all the fans, but all the players you'd want to attract to this thing.
But move those finals and semis to July, and you've booted everyone else off the stage. And then voila: You've transformed the WBC finale into a monstrous date on the global sports calendar -- baseball's version of Super Sunday, or at least the Final Four.
Got a better idea? Feel free to fire it out there. But we sure haven't heard one, if we do say so ourselves.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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