Commentary

WBC resonating with players

Updated: March 5, 2009, 9:19 PM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

The steady stream of big names opting out has made it seem as if the whole idea of the World Baseball Classic, in only its second iteration, might be taking on water. Grady Sizemore, Derrek Lee and John Lackey are out. Ditto Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, B.J. Ryan and Carlos Marmol, among others.

Adrian Gonzalez
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty ImagePadres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez will be playing in his second WBC for Mexico.
Has the idea of an international tournament -- a World Cup of professional baseball -- failed to connect with players? Has the fact that some participants in the 2006 WBC went on to struggle with injuries during the regular season scared folks off? Is the competition, at precisely the moment it most needs to take root if it has any hope of becoming a real tradition, becoming instead a kind of curious sideshow?

"If you ask me, nothing could be further from the truth," said Padres ace and Team USA starter Jake Peavy, who will participate in his second WBC beginning Thursday. "Being asked to be a part of this, to represent your country in this competition, is a great feeling. I can't even tell you how much it means."

Peavy and others who took part the first time around swear by the WBC experience, pointing to the rush of feeling that comes with going heads-up, country versus country.

"I told Roy Oswalt and some of the other guys coming to it for the first time, this isn't no joke," he said. "It's early in the spring and you tell yourself you're going to scale it back, but there's something about putting on your colors and looking across the way … you just can't go half-speed."

It's been three years since the first tournament, so it's easy to forget how intense the competition was on the field, and how jacked-up the fans were throughout the 2006 WBC. Lee, a 2006 WBC veteran, opted out this time around because he had concerns about getting enough at-bats (with Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis on the roster) in preparation for the coming season. But he compares the atmosphere to the Fall Classic.

"There is an adrenaline level to it; it's maybe only comparable to the World Series," the Cubs first baseman said. "You're at the plate with 40,000 people chanting. It's amazing."

And while there was some feeling coming out of the 2006 WBC that perhaps dialing up early in the spring put players at risk of injury and fatigue, Lee says playing at such a high pitch was beneficial: "It helped me to be that focused; I got off to a great start that year."

Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who will play in his second WBC for Team Mexico when games begin this week, agrees. "I think preparation is overrated," he said. "If you know you're going to go out there and play a meaningful game, then you get yourself in the mindset to do that. In a way this is a great reminder that part of getting ready is to stop thinking mechanically and let it go."

Still, it's hard to dismiss the list of high-profile players who will sit this tournament out, and there is little question that many major league teams are wary of their players' participating.

"I'm always a little concerned when a player leaves, knowing the short amount of time we've been here [in camp], but all clubs are in the same boat," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who nevertheless believes his presumptive closer Jonathan Broxton is in good hands with Team USA's pitching coaches Marcel Lachemann and Mel Stottlemyre.

And Angels general manager Tony Reagins has explained that he was uncomfortable allowing his ace, Lackey -- who missed significant time due to injury in 2008 and who wanted to participate -- to play in this year's tournament.

"There are players from a baseball standpoint I have concerns with, because of their medical history of last year," Reagins told MLB.com in January.

Paul Seiler, CEO of USA Baseball, says attrition is simply a part of the process for every team putting together a tournament roster. Injuries and changes of heart are inevitable.

"We're disappointed that Grady Sizemore can't be with us, but we're excited that Shane Victorino can now take part," he said. "It's challenging at times, but you cope with the losses by not focusing on what you've lost. The talent pool for us is very deep. You focus on what you can control and you get excited about what is coming together."

Seiler insists the key variable in the success or failure of the American team this year, and of the event as a whole this year and beyond, is not the names on the backs of the jerseys but the commitments of the individuals wearing them.

"Brian McCann was working out at the gym early, in the hopes of getting the call to be a part of this team," he said. "Jake Peavy [who threw three shutout innings against the Cubs on Sunday before leaving to join Team USA in Florida] is at a different level right now than he would be in a regular spring because he wants to do this, because he has dedicated himself to this."

It's hard to know for certain whether these guys are representative of a broad feeling about the tournament or are supercharged anomalies. But it's easy to imagine their enthusiasm for it resonating with players throughout the major leagues, even those who are not taking part in the tournament.

"You can feel everybody rallying around you: your teammates, the fans," Gonzalez said. "It reminds me of the World Cup, when we're all rooting [for] Mexico, and you stay up late to watch the games because it's something you just don't want to miss."

Broxton echoes him, saying simply, "It's my honor, man, to be playing in this thing."

Seiler says that feeling, of being part of something larger, is what will make the WBC a tradition in the long run: "There is no substitute for patriotism, whatever country you're from. That's what will sustain this from one year to the next."

Lackey says in addition to patriotism, players will always be drawn to the tournament by good old-fashioned competitive urges.

"The first time, it was new, and maybe there was more of a feeling coming into it that it was an All-Star game, but we all saw how competitive this was in 2006, and I know when they called me and invited me to play this year, it was like, 'We want to win this thing,'" he said.

Though he won't be playing this time around, Lackey said he'll be suiting up as a fan.

"Scot Shields [the Angels middle reliever who is playing in his second WBC] sent me a Team USA cap already," he said. "I'll be wearing that thing, sitting in some restaurant watching the games, and I'll be rooting them on."

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

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Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.