This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: March 4-10, 2013
Is the World Baseball Classic Worth It? Looking for Kyle Lohse
What Hugo Chavez's Death Means for MLB Carl Crawford Snipes Back

As Easy as WBC? Seven Years Later
After the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, we took stock in the fledgling event by declaring that even though it wasn’t a smash, it did have legs to survive in the long-term, but only if it followed on a checklist of improvements we proposed. Seven years later, we revisit that wish list and check in on the WBC’s progress:

Move the WBC to the fall, after the World Series. Frankly, there is no ideal time to play the WBC. Late fall, after the World Series, is about as ideal as it gets, because players will likely be more inclined to participate even if they’re gassed from the MLB season—during the spring, they’re too focused preparing for the upcoming season. Baseball will say no to the fall anyway, because the greed within it says that to compete against both college and pro football and the upcoming holidays make such timing financially unpleasant.

Qualifying rounds. Hallow applause here. There was a qualifying tournament last September in which 16 “lesser” nations had to fight it out for four slots in the final round. Twelve other nations—including marquee entrants U.S., Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic—get a pass and automatically qualify, because they won at least one game during the 2009 tourney. What makes this even worse is that a team like Canada, which had to earn its way to the finals, did so with a roster that now has to make room for major league stars like Joey Votto, Justin Morneau, John Axford and Brett Lawrie—none of whom were there when the Canadians gave qualified last September.

Toughen the eligibility requirements. This is, in our opinion, WBC’s biggest embarrassment. Anthony Rizzo, the up-and-coming slugger for the Chicago Cubs, is playing for Italy because he had a great-grandfather who was born in Sicily. Of the 28 players on the Spanish roster, only one was actually born in Spain; most of the others have never even visited there. The WBC’s official eligibility rules even state that you can play for a certain nation if you show proof that you could get citizenship or just a passport from that nation…if you wanted. This is not true representation; it’s just another way to divvy up major league All-Stars (most of them born and raised in the U.S.) to keep interest in the tournament high.

End the mercy rules. A game can be ended when a team is up by ten or more runs after seven innings, or 15-plus runs after five. This isn’t little league. These are professionals who can gut out nine innings of embarrassment; it wouldn’t be the first time.

Let the pitchers pitch. Loosen up the restrictions of pitch counts—but only if the tourney moves to the fall (see above). Otherwise, the limits make sense in springtime with many pitchers bound to multi-million dollar contracts for major league teams which—let’s be real about this—are a much higher priority. Club over country, indeed.

Take it abroad. Baseball has done well to split up the first two rounds of play internationally, with fans in Japan, Taiwan and Puerto Rico watching the action in person. Fan turnout has run hot and cold in these venues, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Cuba must get rid of those atrocious red softball get-ups. We said this then, and we say it today. Memo to the Castros: Call Phil Knight immediately.

Is This the End of NAFTA?
The Mexican and Canadian WBC teams felt the tournament was serious enough to mix it up and box around in the ninth inning of their game in Phoenix on Saturday. Up 9-3, Canada’s Chris Robinson bunted for a base hit—steaming Mexico players who felt that the unwritten rule of not bunting with a sizeable lead was violated (never mind that run differential is an important consideration in determining who advances). Mexico pitcher Arnold Leon, apparently prodded by third baseman Luis Cruz, next threw two pitches that nearly hit Rene Tosoni, which drew an umpire’s warning to both benches. So what did Leon do with his next pitch? He hit Tosoni square in the back, and all hell broke loose. The usual scrum disintegrated into separate skirmishes that got ugly—and worse, the fans got into it, as a loaded plastic bottle was thrown out of the stands and conked Canada pitching coach Denis Boucher on the head. The Canadian victory eliminated Mexico from the tournament—24 hours after El Tri notched an impressive 5-2 win over the U.S.

How Lohse Can it Go?
Kyle Lohse was 16-3 last year, 30-11 over his last two seasons. He put together a spiffy 2.86 ERA in 2012. He was the winning pitcher in the wild card play-in game that helped put the St. Louis Cardinals deep into the postseason. He’s a free agent, it’s spring, and he’s a man without a team.

What’s going on? Two words: Scott Boras. The super-agent representing the 34-year-old right-hander has a nasty habit of stringing out a process to the 11th hour and sometimes even beyond, obviously not afraid to take chances. It paid off when one of his clients, outfielder Michael Bourn, secured a four-year, $48 million deal with Cleveland at the beginning of spring training. The jury is still out on college pitcher Mark Appel, who’s risking a final year at Stanford when he could have taken a good deal of up-front dough to sign with Pittsburgh last summer in the amateur draft.

Now here we are with Lohse; there’s so many teams are out there in need of a strong pitcher like him, but they’re not falling over each other to get there. Why? Because Boras wants a three-year deal and a lot of money for Lohse. Teams don’t want to give Lohse three years because of his age and the knowledge that, although he’s been very good of late, he’s still a .500 career arm with a 4.45 earned run average. And by signing Lohse, a team would lose a first-round draft pick—something that will discourage anyone from signing him to a one- or even two-year deal.

Who will flinch first? Never underestimate Boras, but he can only play the market to his advantage so much.

Looking Beyond Chavez
It was not a good week for Venezuela. First came the news that strongman Hugo Chavez passed away after a long bout with cancer; the week then ended with the nation’s WBC team, featuring star players Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval, Carlos Gonzalez and Martin Pradobeing eliminated in the first round of the tournament after suffering early losses to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

But according to Dave Zirin of The Nation, folks at MLB Central are quietly whistling Ding Dong, the Witch is Gone in response to Chavez’s departure. Not for the same reasons that the White House might be whistling it, but because it could bring an end to the stifling socialist policies MLB teams have had to work with in running baseball academies in Venezuela. Chavez, concerned that the academies did nothing to look after the kids that failed to succeed there (like the academies felt they had such obligations), forced them to provide job training and protections, employee and player benefits, and wanted 10% of all player signing bonuses skimmed to fund his government. The restrictions led to the closure of 16 academies over the last decade, with only five left open, according to Zirin—as MLB teams get around Chavez’s jurisdiction by simply shipping Venezuelan prospects to the Dominican Republic. It’s capitalism vs. socialism (with a touch of despotism) at its best; it appears the almighty dollar will outlast the dictator.

A B.A. to Beantown
It was a lousy and thankfully short tenure on the field for Carl Crawford in Boston—and apparently it wasn’t much better off the field as well. We’re not just talking about the racist taunting from an off-duty policeman during a rehab assignment last season in Massachusetts; the 31-year-old outfielder, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, painfully reflected on his year-plus of hell with the Red Sox, saying of the Boston media: “I took so much of a beating in Boston, I don’t think anything could bother me anymore. They can say what they want—that I’m the worst free agent ever—and it won’t get to me. But it bothered me the whole time there.” And with that, Crawford becomes the latest in a long line of Boston players including Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Jim Rice (and let’s not forget Casey Stengel, who as manager of the Boston Braves was once cheered by a Boston sportswriter for having his leg broken by a cab) who’ve voiced their frustration with the Beantown media over the eons.

Closing Down with Mariano
Mariano Rivera, 43, announced this past week that he will retire following the 2013 season, ending a 19-year career considered the greatest among closers. “The last game I hope will be throwing the last pitch in the World Series,” he told reporters at a news conference. “Winning the World Series, that would be my ambition.” Rivera already owns five World Series rings, as well as seven Sporting News Fireman of the Year awards, an all-time record 608 career saves, a lifetime 2.21 ERA and a phenomenal 0.70 mark in 96 postseason games with 42 more saves; he’s hoping to have a positively memorable last go-around after missing most of 2012 due to a right knee tear while chasing down batting practice flies in Kansas City last May.

A Rookie at 54?
Knuckleballers tend to be late bloomers as we’ve seen with the late-30s-and-beyond success of Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and R.A. Dickey, but now Tom Wright is trying to have them all beat. Wright last played organized ball as an outfielder for the Single-A Miami Miracle in 1989, but at age 54 he’s confident he can make it as a major leaguer throwing a knuckler to compliment a slider and fastball in the 80s (as in 80 MPH, not the 1980s), and like Yoenis Cespedes before him has been marketing his talents through a YouTube video. Four teams (the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins) have given Wright a ring, or at least that’s what he claims, and has only gotten as far as a spring invite—and an early spring release—from the Dodgers.

Fine Tuning Appears to be an Issue
It’s only spring training, but the ying-yang performance of the Philadelphia Phillies’ pitching staff warrants some web ink here. The week started fine enough, with four pitchers combining to one-hit the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday. On Tuesday, starting pitcher
Cole Hamels took on the Dominican WBC team and got smashed, 15-1, with the DR slashing out 28 hits. On Wednesday, a matchup with divisional rival Washington tensed up when Roy Halladay threw behind the Nationals’ Tyler Moore, a possible retaliation for the Phillies’ Chase Utley earlier being plunked by a Stephen Strasburg fastball; it was considered the continuation of a war of HBPs that began last season between the two teams. (The Phillies won, 6-3.) And finally on Thursday, Phillie pitching turned ugly again when it lost to Minnesota, 10-6—serving up three homers to the Twins’ Aaron Hicks, who hit 13 at the Double-A level last year.

Wounded of the Week
wounded of the weekAfter a painful start to the exhibition season in which numerous major leaguers found themselves on the disabled list, it was the general managers’ turn to say ouch this past week. Yankee GM Brian Cashman sky dived for charity and loved it so much the first time, he quickly went up and did it again—and landed hard, breaking his ankle and joining just about every other Yankee player on the shelf. Meanwhile out in Arizona, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin was reminded that the desert used to be owned by nasty critters like scorpions, one of who stung him on the hand. And it just wasn’t any ol’ scorpion; it was an Arizona Bark Scorpion, whose sting can be fatal. Melvin was rushed to the emergency room as numbness began moving up his arm; had he waived it off and figured he could tough it out, he risked death.

On the field, the update to St. Louis shortstop Rafael Furcal was not good, as he was declared out for the season after opting for Tommy John surgery on his elbow. This opens the door for back up Pete Kozma, who we highlighted last week in our group of Teasers after a great call-up late in 2012, to possibly take over the starting job for the bulk of 2013.

TGG Goes to Arizona
For the second time in three years, This Great Game correspondent Eric Gouldsberry will be tromping and stomping the Cactus League grounds, reporting and picturing the odds, ends, sights and sounds of the Phoenix area for the TGG Facebook page—this time likely concentrating on the west end of the area where new spring complexes have sprung up in places like Glendale, Surprise and Goodyear. It’ll be a short but sweet visit, so become a fan and get updates this week.

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