Classic made for the world, not U.S.

Originally Published: March 17, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Instead of A-Rod in the World Baseball Classic Final Four, you're just going to have to settle for Yulieski Gourriel.

Instead of Derrek Lee, you'll just have to bask in the magic of Lee Seung Yeop.

There is much to be learned with the U.S. absent from the World Baseball Classic.

One more grand finale for Roger Clemens? Well, no. But one more glimpse of the sensational Pedro Luis Lazo? Si.

Welcome, senores and senoras, to Bud Selig's worst nightmare (non-Barry Bonds division):

The four best baseball-playing nations on earth have arrived in San Diego for the WBC's final four -- and none of them will be singing along to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It's safe to say that's not how the commish, or the players' union, or the ESPN programmers would have scripted this spectacle if anyone had handed them a keyboard.

But this is life. And this is baseball. You can't script it. You can't pre-program it on your Xbox. You can't call any toll-free numbers and vote on which matchups you'd most like to see.

This is the WBC you get -- Korea, Japan, Cuba and the Dominican. And no U.S. of A.

Here's the question, though: Is that a bad thing? Or is it actually a good thing -- possibly even a great thing?

Or is it even both?

Uh, yes. And yes. And yes again. Here's what we mean:

IT'S A GOOD THING

You know, there is a reason they call this the World Baseball Classic. As opposed to, say, the U.S. Open.

" I see it as something that really hurts me. It bothers me because we admire the way they play, we admire the quality of their game, and we would have even liked to face the United States in this tournament. "
--Cuba manager Higinio Velez
Because it's not about us. Not really. The WBC wasn't invented to sell baseball to Americans. That sale was made a long time ago.

So it's not about us. It's about them. All of them. In fact, it's really about everyone out there except us.

This Final Four is dominating the front pages of newspapers in all four of these countries. Not the sports pages. The front pages. The news pages.

Flags are waving. Politicians are yakking. Hearts are beating. Cash registers are ringing.

That's what this is about.

"It's not about us," said Jim Small, the managing director of Major League Baseball's Tokyo office. "It's about the world. Baseball has been played in Korea for 100 years. It's been played in Japan for 120 years. So it's their sport as much as it's our sport, and it has been for 100 years.

"I have arguments with my friends in Japan all the time. They're convinced that baseball was invented in Japan -- and then it was exported to America. You can't convince them otherwise. And that's how it is in soccer, too. Don't tell anyone in Argentina that soccer originated in England. They'd laugh at you. They think it's their sport. ... And we're getting there in baseball now. In these four countries, we're already there. It's their sport now, too."

IT'S A BAD THING

But of course, it's also our sport. And these games are being held in our country, in one of our ballparks. Run and sponsored by our fearless leaders.

Ichiro
Ichiro and his Japanese teammates have practiced the little things in order to get a long way in the tournament.
Without our dollars, our TV cameras and our passion, this event can't ever become everything it needs to be.

So a WBC Final Four with no United States is not going to lure the eyes or the hearts of nearly enough Americans. Not this year. Not this weekend. Not when so many people have basketballs dribbling down the lanes in their brains.

If all goes well, these games will get a higher rating than the "General Hospital" marathon over on the Soap Channel. If all goes well, the people who have gotten sucked in by the first two rounds of the WBC will at least be curious enough to see how it all turns out.

But even the men playing in this Final Four seem disappointed there is no United States super team standing in their way.

"I think the whole world is surprised," said the Dominican's Miguel Tejada, "to see that the USA lost. ... I think the whole world wants to see the USA and the Dominican Republic (as) the last two teams playing."

Hey, sure they do. The whole world, minus about three other countries.

Even Cuban manager Higinio Velez said he felt "regret" that the United States didn't get this far.

"I see it as something that really hurts me," he said. "It bothers me because we admire the way they play, we admire the quality of their game, and we would have even liked to face the United States in this tournament."

Yes, it's the USA that all these countries measure their baseball against. But the moral of this story is: Maybe it's time to design a new set of measuring sticks.

IT'S A GOOD THING

So we won't get to see Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones or Jason Varitek this weekend. It's not exactly mandatory that we look at that as some kind of tragedy.

Uh, this just in: We've all probably spent more of our lifetimes watching those guys than we've spent watching our kids.

But until the WBC came along, most of us had no idea what to make of Gourriel, Cuba's 21-year-old phenom who has been the talk of international baseball since he was 17.

And we'd seen zilch of Lee, the Korean first baseman who mashed 56 home runs in 2003 and has cranked five more in the WBC.

And we had no way of measuring the legendary pitching names from Japan and Cuba -- men like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Lazo -- against competition like this.

Yulieski Gourriel
Al Bello/Getty ImagesYulieski Gourriel has raised his reputation to new heights during the WBC.
But now, thanks to the WBC, we will. The Japanese, Korean and Cuban teams have a total of eight major-league players in uniform. So if we have a choice between the same-old same-old or mystery and intrigue, what's wrong with mystery and intrigue?

The Koreans, Japanese and Cubans have spent the last couple of weeks showing us there are other ways to play baseball -- ways we might want to try out ourselves sometime.

"Here, we've developed an obsession for the long ball, just because we can," said Ted Heid, the Mariners' director of Pacific Rim operations (a.k.a., The Man Who Signed Ichiro). "Other countries don't have that luxury, so they play a 'purer' form of baseball."

As the United States team was going 5-for-41 (.122) with men in scoring position in games against teams other than South Africa, the Koreans and Japanese were giving clinics on how to do the little things. Korea, in particular, has been a study in small-ball perfection -- going 3-0 in one-run games and committing zero errors.

"I think this has been more true of them than anybody in this thing: They are a team," said Heid.

United States manager Buck Martinez gushed the other day about the work ethic of the Koreans and Japanese, the "regimen where they take hundreds of ground balls a day" and their tireless work on every conceivable fundamental. Heid couldn't applaud that observation loudly enough.

"Probably the greatest example of that is Ichiro Suzuki," Heid said. "He can't even beg people to play catch with him enough. It's mind-boggling to him that we don't take pregame infield every day. Our outfielders here never throw once the season starts. Japan and Korea take full infield every day the entire season. And they go about it the right way. I really believe it's going to take comments like that from Buck Martinez for us to snap out of it."

Yeah, comments like that ... and getting our American butts whipped.

Then there are the Cubans -- described by their manager Friday as "a team of men and not of names."

"Cuba plays the game with an excitement that's very, very healthy to see," Heid said. "When you have your own teammates yelling and screaming at each other, that's something you don't see every day."

In America, very few teams and very few players play baseball the way these teams and these men play it. This Final Four is a walking, talking symposium on the kind of baseball we've gotten away from. Somebody ought to take a few notes.

IT'S A BAD THING

We're full of excuses these days for why the United States crashed and burned in this extravaganza. You can probably sing them all by heart at this point.

Seung Yeop Lee
Junko Kimura/Getty ImagesKorea's Seung Yeop Lee has watched the flight of five home-run balls in the WBC.
Guys weren't in shape. Our best players didn't play. Our best pitchers didn't pitch. It was the wrong time of year ... blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

And all of that is true.

But what's also true is that we allowed it all to happen because -- except for the men who played in this thing and the people who worked so tirelessly to pull this event together -- America approached the WBC with no sense of national priority.

It was never sold properly to the national media. It was never spun to nearly enough American baseball fans. And that created a climate that made it way too easy for our best players to bail on the WBC before they ever gave it a chance.

If we were committed to holding this event in March, shouldn't it have been mandatory for the U.S. team to report on Feb. 1, or thereabouts, to its own spring-training camp? Shouldn't there have been an extra effort made to help these guys get ready for a world that was clearly more than geared up for them?

"I don't think people realized how difficult it is to tell these guys to be ready (to play) March 1, without not giving them a training camp to report to," said one front-office man. "I think we asked too much of major-league players. That's why I think you saw a lot of players who were dying to be a part of this, but their bodies were just saying no. Because we didn't get guys ready, the timing hurt us, and it didn't hurt any of these other clubs."

Martinez went even further, suggesting that these players needed to report early, before they reported to their own teams, just to get an earlier realization that they were a team, not a collection of all-stars.

"If I were to do this again," the manager said, "I would ask to have a minicamp so the players would be together. I think we grew as a team the moment we got together. There was so much doubt and so much uncertainty prior to the team seeing each other face-to-face that I think that would be imperative for Team USA."

That's just one of many, many things the Americans would do different when the next WBC rolls around. So at least something good can -- and almost undoubtedly will -- come of even the bad stuff that went on this year.

No matter what time of year the next WBC is held, it's clear now that more players will want to play in it. More fans will feel more passionate about it. And the people in charge will be more motivated than ever to get it right.

"It's really going to be interesting without the USA in the Final Four," Heid said. "Part of me thinks it's a big wakeup call. It's a good slap in the face. We already got our noses bloodied by not playing in the ('04) Olympics. Now our bloody nose has really gotten rubbed in our face in the WBC. So you know what? This tells us we have to make some changes. And I'm excited about that."

So here we are. There will be a Final Four, even without the usual suspects. No Johnny Damon. No Brad Lidge. No Dontrelle Willis. Hardly a familiar face on your TV screens anywhere in sight.

But sometimes in life, the bad news is also the good news. So if what we get is a Final Four that isn't made in or for America, that's no disaster.

It's a very loud voice telling all of us in the U.S. of A., it's time to do better -- or else this will be somebody else's pastime.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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