Commentary

So much at stake for Team USA this time

After poor showing in 2006, Americans need to be a big hit in this year's WBC

Originally Published: March 6, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

So Mike Krzyzewski and the Redeem Team thought they felt pressure, huh?

What their little Olympic basketball ensemble faced in Beijing last summer was a Caribbean cruise compared to the pressure facing Davey Johnson and Team USA this month.

We're not asking them merely to win the World Baseball Classic.

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
AP Photo/Kathy WillensPressure, what pressure? Team USA manager Davey Johnson was all smiles during a workout this week.

We're asking them to save the World Baseball Classic.

Oh, Bud Selig wouldn't agree with that assessment. We know that. We know, in fact, because we've asked him.

The commish would tell us -- and has told us -- that this event was a humongous success around the globe three years ago, and it's going to be a humongous success around the globe this year, no matter who wins.

He's right, of course, on many levels.

But what about this portion of the globe?

What about the U.S. of A.?

For this event to be all it's supposed to be, don't we need people to get charged up about it here?

Three years ago, we sat in ballparks where other WBC countries were playing baseball and were blown away by the energy crackling out of every seat in the park. It felt like the Final Four had just merged with the World Cup.

The baseball was awesome. The atmosphere was even better.

To the Dominicans, the Venezuelans, the Japanese, the Koreans, these weren't just baseball games. These were national referendums on the worth of their countries in the global community. They were emotional. They were bonding. And they were personal.

But not here.

TV ratings don't tell us everything, obviously. But in Japan, 36 percent of all televisions in the country were tuned to the Japan-Korea WBC semifinal game, which started around breakfast time. In Cuba, according to Cuban officials, ratings were in the 90 percent area for Cuba's WBC games.

And here, the biggest rating for any game was a 2.5 -- for the game with Mexico that was either going to propel Team USA into the semifinals or (as it turned out) boot it right out of the tournament.

That was considered a fine rating, by the way, by the folks at ESPN. But just for perspective's sake, more than three times that many people watch the Home Run Derby on this very network -- even though, theoretically, much more is at stake in the WBC.

Well, it's three years later now. Has anything changed? We keep hearing fans, and even radio hosts, tell us they had no idea that the WBC was about to start, or even how it works. We guarantee you that's not a big problem in Seoul or Santo Domingo.

Millions and millions of people care deeply about the WBC. Unfortunately, not enough of them happen to live in the United States.

"You can tell that," said Chipper Jones, a two-time member of Team USA, "by all the pull-outs [by American players]. You know, the guys that are here want to be here. They want to play in it, and they want to win it. But I just don't see how you can pass this opportunity up. I don't care what your reasoning is. If you get into this atmosphere and play in this event, you'll want to do it every year."

In reality, of course, that isn't quite true. Only four players on the current edition of Team USA were on the 2006 edition. (It will be five once Brian Fuentes rejoins the band in the next round, if there is a next round.) So obviously, quite a few players -- especially the pitchers -- don't feel the way Chipper Jones feels.

But we get the sense that many of Team USA's current players are disappointed by that stance. And nobody has expressed that disappointment more eloquently than Chipper.

"You have an opportunity to be an ambassador for the game of baseball, on a whole different level, on a worldwide level," Jones said. "Not just in Cleveland or Philadelphia or Houston. You have a chance to have people in Japan, South Korea, all over the Latin countries, all over the world be able to watch you play against their country. So I just don't understand why you would pass that opportunity up."

They pass it up, clearly, because they don't get that. Or they don't need that. Or they don't care about that. Or maybe the franchises they play for don't care about it -- not enough to take a risk that a major WBC mishap could sabotage their teams and their seasons, anyway.

It's understandable why those teams feel the way they do. But as for those players, Chipper Jones could not be more right. They don't know what they're missing.

Jake Peavy I didn't sign up for this thing to compete. I signed up to play to win. And I think the rest of these guys will tell you the same thing. If we don't make it to Dodger Stadium, if we're not holding the trophy, I say it's a failure on our end.

-- Team USA pitcher Jake Peavy

And the only way they'll ever know is if this team does what it's built to do -- what it needs to do -- and at least makes it to the WBC's final four at Dodger Stadium.

"I think anything less than that would be a failure," said Jake Peavy, another guy who played last time and wanted to come back. "I didn't sign up for this thing to compete. I signed up to play to win. And I think the rest of these guys will tell you the same thing. If we don't make it to Dodger Stadium, if we're not holding the trophy, I say it's a failure on our end."

The four Americans who were there for The End last time around -- Jones, Peavy, Derek Jeter and Scot Shields -- haven't hidden the fact that they were scarred by their elimination in that loss to Mexico, in a game that matched Roger Clemens versus Oliver Perez.

"The guys who were here before -- you can tell that there was almost a disgust that they weren't able to get to the finals," Mark DeRosa said. "And they understand the importance of that this time. And they've relayed that message down to us, that this needs to be different."

This needs to be different. We couldn't have expressed that any better.

This team needs to be much more serious about what's at stake, and much more invested in the outcome, than the last group. We've heard enough stories about the '06 team to get the impression that, to some of the bigger names on that team, this event was no big whoop.

If they won, they won. If they lost, they lost. But it was mostly just something different to pass time in March -- a bunch of fun new guys to hang with, and a more fun baseball setting than those 10 a.m. "B" games with the Pirates.

This time, though, that isn't the feel. This may not be a collection of the biggest stars. But it's a team that's put together more like a real baseball team.

It has situational bullpen arms (Matt Lindstrom, Brad Ziegler et al). It has a super-utility handyman (DeRosa). It has energizers (Dustin Pedroia, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson). It has the perfect leader (Jeter).

And it has a coaching staff that continually talks up the magnitude of this event.

"I think we've got to take each game like it's a World Series game," said Mike Schmidt, a Hall of Famer who has found himself remarkably caught up in the meaning of this moment. "So if that means having Derek Jeter bunt, or Adam Dunn grinding out a two-strike at-bat, that's what we've got to do.

"But more than anything, there's got to be a lot of emotion when we take the field. There's got to be a sense of urgency from the get-go. We don't want to find ourselves five runs down to Canada and then sensing the urgency. We've got to start creating that sense of urgency from the get-go."

And nobody has to explain that to the manager. Davey Johnson has been through enough international baseball to know exactly what's on the line.

This is his seventh global event as either a coach or manager. And he still talks about the weight of having to take an Olympic qualifying team to Cuba in 2006 and beat the Cubans in Havana just to advance to the 2008 Olympics.

"Now that," he said, "was big pressure."

But this, in our view, is right up there with it.

Americans aren't going to catch on to the true magic of the WBC until they see for themselves what a prime-time, packed-house championship game against the Koreans or the Dominicans or the Cubans looks like, feels like, sounds like.

So that's what's at stake here for this team. And by that, we don't just mean: Winning.

We mean: Everything.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com