Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Postscripts from the WBC Pool D and Guadalajara

After taking a day to let the dust settle after Venezuela slipped past Italy, 4-3, Monday to cop the second and final World Baseball Classic second round berth out of Pool D play in Guadalajara, let's look at the aftermath of the goings-on at Estadio Charros between last Thursday and Monday and the potential longer-term ramifications.

First of all, I've heard from a longtime BBM reader who has a great deal of experience in an official capacity at international baseball tournaments in both hemispheres and whose opinion I trust.  What I'm told is that the formula used to determine that Venezuela, not Mexico, would advance to Monday's tiebreaker game against Italy was set prior to the opening of the WBC and applied in the wake of Mexico's 11-9 victory over Venezuela, a game that took nearly five hours to complete nine innings and didn't conclude until nearly 2AM in Guadalajara.

The sticking point among Mexican officials in the hours that followed was how to interpret  Italy's five-run ninth inning in their 10-9 upset of the host country Friday night, a frame in which MLBers Roberto Osuna and Oliver Perez failed to record a single out before John Andreoli's game-winning single ended the game.  There was much heated debate over how the tiebreaker formula should be applied, but the WBC's initial erroneous tweet that Mexico had advanced to play Italy Monday night likely caused more damage to the tournament's credibility than than any calculator did.  The blowback could be seen at Estadio Charros during Monday's game, when only 1,783 people (possibly a WBC record for smallest attendance at a single game) rattled around the stands after the six previous contests drew a total of 84,349 for an average of 14,058 per opening.  A Mexico-Italy tiebreaker likely would have pushed the five-day attendance total to over 100,000.

By the way, here's an explanation of how the tiebreaker rule was used, courtesy of USA Today and Sports Illustrated via Wikipedia:  The first tiebreaker criterion is fewest runs allowed per defensive inning played(RA/IPD) in the games between the tied teams. Mexico allowed 19 runs, Italy allowed 20 runs, and Venezuela allowed 21 runs. Italy and Venezuela played 19 innings each in the two games, therefore their RA/IPD were 1.053 and 1.105. Mexico played 18 innings, but they recorded no outs in the ninth inning of their game versus Italy, therefore the inning did not count towards their RA/IPD of 1.117; however the five runs scored in the same half inning by Italy did count against Mexico's RA/IPD.  Whatever one thinks of the outcome, those ARE the rules, my source says they were followed as written and I believe him.

One result of the postgame imbroglio is that Mexican team captain Adrian Gonzalez (pictured) says that this will be his last WBC regardless of whether he's still playing in 2021.  This is significant in that "El Titan" has been a mainstay for Mexico at every WBC since its inaugural tournament in 2006 and made the trip to Jalisco despite battling a version of tennis elbow since last winter that had kept him out of the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup for spring training games in Arizona.  The rust showed, as Gonzalez went just 1-for-12 at the plate in three Pool D games, but hthe Dodgers All-Star's openly-stated desire to make the trip and play through pain is a testament of his commitment to suiting up for Mexico and his brother, manager Edgar Gonzalez.  Father David Gonzalez, a Mexican baseball coach for decades, was on the WBC staff as well.  Adrian has been known to voice his displeasure in the past and his comment Monday that the WBC "is trying to be the World Cup, but they're not even the Little League World Series" would qualify, but he may change his mind in four years.  Or not.

This touches on another aspect of the WBC that has plagued many teams other than Mexico's:  Staging the event two weeks into MLB training camps means players are not showing up for the WBC in game shape.  This was never clearer than on Friday, when Toronto closer Osuna (who saved 36 games for the Jays last season) was knocked around by Italian batters before being yanked for Perez, who did pitch over the winter for Culiacan in the Mexican Pacific League, but Gonzalez and Osuna were hardly the only cases of players representing their countries in the WBC before their bodies were ready.  Many Mexican baseball columnists have questioned the wisdom of bypassing players who'd spent the winter in the MexPac or other such leagues in favor of some more accomplished but out-of-shape big leaguers. The emergence of Israel and The Netherlands from Pool A with teams consisting largely of minor leaguers did not go unnoticed.

There was some controversy in Guadalajara even before Sunday night's marathon.  Just before the ninth inning of Puerto Rico's 9-4 win over Mexico, fighting broke out in the family section of the stands in left field foul territory, causing members of the Puerto Rican team to come out of their dugout to check on family and friends who were sitting there.  All-Star catcher Yadier Molina later tweeted, "MLB,,,its a shame that you are more interested in making money and not in the security of our family when you were supposed to have security for them,, Horrible organization for this event, no security for the players family ,, its a shame MLB..."  In fairness, I've seen no reports than any WBC player's family members were caught up in the disturbance, but it was a tense situation.  Molina is not alone among players and others criticizing how the event was put together in Jalisco, but his comments have perhaps drawn the most attention.

One other incident on Saturday was the ninth-inning home plate collision between Italian baserunner Drew Butera and Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez, whose backup in Kansas City is...Drew Butera.  Replays imply no malice on the part of Butera, who appeared to stumble into Butera in front of the plate while trying to score the game-winning run from first on a Gavin Cecchini single, but the result was something that makes every MLB general manager cringe as Perez (a four-time All-Star) was helped off the field, taken out of the game and given two MRIs for a knee injury.  Perez says he'll be ready for Opening Day of the Royals' season, but longstanding concerns over prominent MLB players getting injured in the WBC were reignited.

So what do I take from all this in my own more-or-less final analysis?  When you have top players avoiding the WBC the way NFL players avoid the Pro Bowl, you have a problem.  When some general managers discourage players from participating in the WBC, you have a problem.  When you have inspired minor leaguers representing nations not known as baseball hotbeds (hello, Israel) advancing to the next stage while more accomplished and better-paid players (hello, South Korea) are knocked out by the upstarts, you have a problem.  When you have All-Stars saying they will never again play for their national team in your tournament, you have a problem.  When most fans in MLB cities across North America show no interest in your tournament to begin with, you have a problem.  When sources say this may be the last WBC anyway if it doesn't pencil out financially for MLB, you REALLY have a problem.

I love the concept (if not the execution) behind the World Baseball Classic, but I just don't see this event continuing in this form after next weekend.  The negatives simply outweigh the positives.  While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said he wants the WBC continue, this was Bud Selig's baby and Selig's retirement took away the tournament's most vigilant defender.  The clock is ticking.