Commentary

The Stark Plan will give WBC big boost

Holding WBC semis and finals during July's All-Star week would produce great theater

Originally Published: March 20, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- I stood with a longtime baseball man this week, watching what passes these days for who's-No.-94-out-there spring-training baseball. Our conversation turned to the World Baseball Classic.

It's an event we both love. Too bad we sometimes feel like the only people in America who love it.

"The idea is great," he said. "The way we're doing it is not so great."

[+] EnlargeTeam USA
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesThe World Baseball Classic could become an even more thrilling event if a few changes were made to the scheduling of games.

I bet I've had some version of that conversation with 50 people this spring. Every one of us wants to embrace everything there is to embrace about the WBC. But we can't.

And all the reasons we can't can be summed up in one word:

Timing.

Timing is everything in life, right? But in the WBC's case, timing is undermining everything -- everything that's good about this event, anyway.

Bud Selig himself told me recently that March is "the only time" to play the WBC. I respectfully disagree.

We both want this tournament to be baseball's finest, globally perfect hour. But there are three reasons I don't think that can ever happen as long as the entire extravaganza is being held in March:

1. The best players aren't playing in it. Or if they are, many of them aren't ready for the demands of playing in it. Where's Josh Beckett? Where's Roy Halladay? Where are Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan? How wrong is it for Venezuela to be heading for the WBC Final Four without Johan Santana? And as mind-boggling as the Netherlands' upset of the Dominican may have been, I have a hard time believing that would have happened if Carlos Marmol had had his real stuff in the 11th inning, as opposed to his second-week-of-March stuff.

2. The WBC is a crime against spring training. A crime. A felony. There is no more special, more uplifting chunk of the baseball year than spring training -- but not this spring training. When Ramon Castro is hitting cleanup for the Mets, and the Red Sox are bringing lineups on the road that they'd be embarrassed to run out there in Pawtucket, that's not spring training. That's consumer fraud. But that's not all. Spring training is supposed to be a time for team building. But when players leave their teams for weeks at a time (six weeks, in the case of Japanese players), the clubs they've left behind feel like all they're doing is killing time, waiting for their real team to come back. They can't say that publicly, of course, or they'll be flogged by the proper authorities. But I've heard that sentiment in one spring-training camp after another. Meanwhile, nobody knows what to make of just about anything they've seen this spring. It's insanity.

3. Finally, what happened to the Americans who should love the WBC most? They aren't watching. That's what. Not enough of them are, anyhow. Either they've been way too preoccupied with how to handicap Wake Forest-Cleveland State, or the folks locked in on baseball are more focused on their teams. Understandably, too. Why wouldn't Yankees fans care more about who their center fielder is going to be than who's going to close for Team USA? Sure, it's possible to care about both, I guess. But why is baseball so intent on competing against itself? What kind of business sense does that make?

Well, luckily for Bud Selig and all the WBC powers that be, I have a plan.

I know that's a statement that has been known to inspire sheer terror among my very own family members. But this time, I've actually got a good plan.

I can fix pretty much everything that's wrong with the WBC, as currently constituted. And I can even guarantee, with 100-percent assurance, that it will work.

How do I know? Because I've run it past dozens of people this spring -- players, coaches, managers, general managers, front-office people, fans and even a couple of waiters who made the mistake of striking up a conversation with me.

They all love it. Every one of them. I'd have a tough time getting a higher approval rating than that if I announced, "I'll be giving out free money to everyone who reads my columns for the next month."

But before I lay out The Stark Plan, let me present three other WBC ideas I've heard that will at least get you thinking:

PLAN A: THE ALL-STAR-WEEK EXTRAVAGANZA

I heard this proposal from the always-incisive Buck Martinez, who managed Team USA in the 2006 WBC. Here's his idea:

Bag the All Star Game every four years and play the whole WBC during what would otherwise be All Star Week in July.

I want this event to be everything it should be. I want to see Roy Halladay dueling Johan Santana, with Josh Hamilton at the plate, Ryan Howard on deck and Jonathan Papelbon warming up in the bullpen.

The sites would be the three metropolises with two ballparks -- New York, Chicago and L.A./Anaheim. No off days in each round for any team still alive. Finish the entire tournament in one week in July. And hold the finals on a Sunday, in prime time, when there isn't another sporting event in America to serve as competition. But, most of all, play this event when "players are ready," Martinez said.

"In July, players are ready to go," he said. "Players are in optimum shape. You'd take extra starters, so you'd have one starter start a game and that's it. And you'd give the rest of baseball a week's vacation in the middle of the summer. I think it would be a great thing for baseball.

"Then everybody's in shape. Nobody's concerned. Then you might get the Roy Halladays and Brandon Webbs and Jon Lesters and Josh Becketts. But if you hold it in March, then I understand why they won't do it."

What's the down side: Excellent idea. But there are two reasons owners would balk: (1) No interest in abandoning tradition by not holding the All-Star Game and (2) forcing half the clubs in baseball to give up a weekend worth of gates in July. To me, the positives take a unanimous decision over the negatives. But it would be a tough sell.

PLAN B: THE WORLD SERIES WINNERS TAKE ON THE WORLD

This idea was floated by a manager who wished to remain nameless:

Take the team that wins the World Series and pit it against the best teams in the world, the week after the World Series. It would be fun viewing, but it's a plan with a bunch of problems.

What's the down side: For one thing, it wouldn't be a true World Cup of Baseball, which is the whole point of the WBC. Plus, the big issue with any November version of this event is that players on non-playoff teams wouldn't be in shape, and players who played in the postseason would be burned out. Beyond that, suppose the Mets win the World Series. Would Santana pitch against Venezuela? You'd be threatening an international incident. So the better idea, which players love, is to have the World Series winner play the Japan Series winner some year. One of these centuries …

PLAN C: LIFE IMITATES THE PRO BOWL

Our final proposal comes from always-thoughtful Braves special assistant Jim Fregosi. His idea:

Play the WBC semifinals and finals in October, in between the League Championship Series and World Series.

"What's the NFL doing with the Pro Bowl? Playing it the week before the Super Bowl [next year]." Fregosi said. "Well, that's what baseball should do with the WBC."

What's the down side: One major issue is, you'd limit the potential participants, because players on the four LCS teams wouldn't be eligible, obviously. Now maybe your first reaction is: That still leaves plenty of other players to take part. Uh, not so fast. Suppose Ichiro weren't eligible to play for Japan, for example. Biiiigggg trouble. The other issue is: The October schedule is too jammed now. If anything, baseball needs to tighten it. Nevertheless, it's an interesting idea.

But it's not as interesting as the universally acclaimed Plan D -- (ta-taaaaa) …

THE STARK PLAN

Here's how we'd streamline this event if I were in charge:

Stage one: I'd take the eight teams that lost in the first round this year and lump them into a dramatic play-in round, consisting of two four-team round robins. Only the two winners would advance. Everybody else would go home and figure out where on their cable dial to find the MLB Network. I'd vote for holding that qualifying round right after the season, but I'm flexible. Want to play it in October? November? February? March? Whatever works best for all concerned. Doesn't matter to me.

Stage two: OK, now we have 10 teams left. Rather than yank their players out of spring training for weeks, The Stark Plan interrupts the spring festivities for only one week. We'd use that week to play two five-team round robins to get down to a Final Four.

Stage three: The Grand Finale -- So when would we decide the baseball champion of the world? In July, the best time of all. I'd bring the last four teams to the site of the All-Star Game. Then we'd have the greatest week of baseball ever. It would look like this:

[+] EnlargeIchiro
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesIchiro and Team Japan would love to consistently sit on top of the baseball world.

• Home Run Derby on Monday.

• All-Star Game on Tuesday.

• WBC semifinals on Wednesday.

• WBC finals on Thursday.

How much fun would that be? You'd literally trot the greatest players on earth out there four nights in a row. You'd have one spectacular baseball night after another. There wouldn't be another meaningful sporting event on anybody's calendar -- unless Little Johnny's Babe Ruth League team made the playoffs or something.

If the WBC couldn't outrate every July TV show on the airwaves, from the RBC Canadian Open to the "Project Runway" season finale, it's a lost cause anyway.

I laid out my ingenious plan this week to MLB senior vice president Paul Archey, MLB's chief architect of the WBC. He actually had lots of nice things to say about it.

But we also both agreed on the biggest problem with this idea: "This is not just a United States event," Archey said.

It's true. If you look around, the WBC is drawing off-the-chart ratings around the world. It's doing everything it was designed to do, and maybe more, in swelling baseball's global popularity. So "if you judge this tournament on what happens in the United States," Archey said, "that's probably not the right barometer."

And he's right. But here's the counter-argument: If the WBC is really going to be everything it could be, everything it's supposed to be, we have to find a way for the baseball lovers in the United States to get swept up in it, too. And face it. That can't happen in March. Too many basketballs banking off the backboards in our heads.

But as Archey pointed out, there are other complications with The Stark Plan, too.

Could the Japanese, the Koreans and the Cubans arrange to freeze their seasons in time in July and fly off to the site of the All-Star Game? Maybe not. And what if everyone wanted to hold the semifinals and finals in Japan some year? Then what?

Two great points. But here's my answer. Those countries all suspend their seasons -- for two weeks -- for the Olympics, right? So why wouldn't they agree to do the same -- for a few days -- for the WBC?

And if we ever work out a rotation system in which the finals are played in Asia, say, once every four tournaments, we're talking once every 16 years. So we can figure out that scenario when that time comes.

But first, we need to get the good old USA on board here. And The Stark Plan is just the ticket to do that.

Want to mess with my plan in any way, or every way? I'm open to suggestions. Want to have just the last two teams play in July? Sure. Want to bring eight teams instead of four and play through the weekend? Works for me. Want to change the preliminary rounds? I'll listen to anything.

But in the end, here's what I want to see happen:

I want this event to be everything it should be. I want to see Roy Halladay dueling Johan Santana, with Josh Hamilton at the plate, Ryan Howard on deck and Jonathan Papelbon warming up in the bullpen.

I want the night of the WBC finals to feel like baseball's version of Super Sunday. I want it to be one of the most momentous nights on the entire sports calendar.

And I want spring training to feel like spring training again -- not the background noise for the WBC.

This can happen. This needs to happen. And all my favorite sport has to do to make it happen is embrace those three magic words, "The Stark Plan." Tell you what. If they adapt it, I'll even waive my usual fee.

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