WHY JEOPARDIZE STARS IN MARCH? PLAY THE WBC IN NOVEMBER, IF AT ALL
Priorities are askew when Major League Baseball allows an exhibition before a seven-month-plus season, leading to Edwin Diaz’s freak knee injury that mars the hopes of the $470 million New York Mets
There’s a time and a place for the World Baseball Classic. I’m thinking mid-December in Rob Manfred’s backyard, by the hammock where he sleeps away his years as the sport’s so-called commissioner. To stage glorified scrimmages in March only bastardizes the real season and devalues the collective billions invested in payrolls by major-league teams.
Who jeopardizes the health of star players only days before the legit games begin? Manfred does, and it serves him right that his ass-backwards marketing scheme already has sabotaged one of the few franchises that truly cares about ultimate glory. Every four years, he wants to showcase baseball’s global cachet in a tournament that makes no sense before a 162-game regular season, which is followed by a month-long postseason. Who shoehorns a spirited international event — and expects players to replace their usual bend-and-stretch dawdling with October-like passion — into the final days of spring training?
The delusion that this idea ever could work exploded in tears Wednesday night in Miami. That’s where closer Edwin Diaz, the electric performer who enters games at Citi Field to the sound of triumphant trumpets, heard the sober bugle call of “Taps.” Celebrating a 5-2 victory over the Dominican Republic with his Puerto Rico teammates, Diaz collapsed in the middle of a moving, jumping scrum. Emotionally shaken, he was taken off the field in a wheelchair, and as feared, he’ll likely miss the entire season after surgery to repair a full-thickness tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee.
For the New York Mets and their multi-billionaire owner, Steve Cohen, this is a reason to have your head examined. Why obliterate the Competitive Balance Tax threshold and commit almost $500 million to a World Series run when all could be lost in a meaningless exhibition? For Major League Baseball, it’s the latest in a series of self-defeatist debacles where greed overwhelms common sense. Manfred is risking the health of star players in March when the total value of Team USA’s roster alone is $2.05 billion. When the combined 2023 payrolls of five franchises — Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Tampa Bay — don’t equal that of this team’s $380 million.
See, Manfred still could have his WBC after the season and accomplish his goal of uniting the nations of a vast baseball planet — from North America to South America, Asia to Europe — in a global fusion that even the almighty NFL lacks. That way, he appeases large TV audiences in Tokyo who watch Shohei Ohtani slam home runs and throw 102-mph heat. And fans who chant “Mexico! Mexico!” in Phoenix after a rout of the U.S. — the richest sports team ever assembled. Clearly, populated world pockets are interested in this event, sanctioned within a MLB partnership by two vague entities: the International Baseball Federation and the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
But here in America, where the sport was invented and once was considered the national pastime, we sit in utter horror and wonder why they’re putting the cart before the horsehide. Is this again a case of Fox Sports, which bribed its way to World Cup soccer rights and is becoming the devil incarnate of sports, pushing for an awkward WBC timeline at the expense of baseball’s greater good? We view it as a niche time-filler, an international version of the All-Star jamborees failing in the NFL and NBA. We’re immersed in March Madness and all its beautiful bracket-busting — Furman toppling Virginia, Princeton schooling Arizona — while awaiting Aaron Rodgers’ first New York press conference and Lamar Jackson’s late-night tweets when he realizes he’s stuck in Baltimore.
So when Diaz is swallowed needlessly by the WBC dragon, it raises hackles … and more questions about the sanity of it all. Cohen should be commended for his restraint, tweeting Thursday, “Edwin Diaz is a great human being and a fierce competitor. All of us at the Mets are shaken but determined to sustain our quest for a great season.” Of course, he can find another high-priced closer at the trade deadline after throwing $102 million at Diaz in November. Still, a sport that needs showmen has lost one of the fun ones, someone who could have closed out a World Series with flair.
As pointed out by Adam Ottavino, Diaz’s teammate with the Mets and Team USA, major-league executives are holding their breaths and noses while hoping stars aren’t injured. The players decide if they want to play in the WBC, if invited. “None of the teams really want you to play in it, anyway,” he said. “That was the case before this (Díaz injury). So that only strengthens that a little bit, I guess.” Mike Trout referred to the WBC as “the funnest experience I’ve had on a baseball field,” but what if one of the sport’s prominent faces is injured? What if Ohtani, who should be $500 million richer next winter after free agency, gets hurt? They not only would cripple their own careers but wreck yet another season for their day-job team, the Los Angeles Angels, who are trying not to completely waste the Trout-Ohtani era.
The same fears apply to dozens of top players taking the March risk for no apparent good reason, other than selling their personal brands worldwide and, in some cases, playing for their countries. The Los Angeles Dodgers were quick to pressure one of their elite, high-priced players, Freddie Freeman, into leaving Team Canada after he suffered a mild right hamstring injury. The Canadian manager, Ernie Whitt, reflected behind-the-scenes tensions when he said, “The Dodgers decided that.” Later, Freeman said it was his call. “It was really tough. I feel like I let them down,” said the veteran first baseman, who was raised in southern California but played for Canada to honor his late mother, a native of that country.
Dave Roberts, whose continued employment as Dodgers manager depends on Freeman’s performance and availability, described it as “a very responsible decision.” He added, “When you have a situation where we don’t have our eyes on guys, you always kind of have a little bit of nervousness, a little fear of injury, and hopefully this is the worst of it.” Which prompts a heavy question.
Why conduct the World Baseball Classic if the teams who pay the players — handsomely, massively, exorbitantly — don’t want them there? To rescue the concept, why not move it to a more logical timeframe? Problem is, what is that timeframe? Unlike the NBA, which can use the Summer Olympics as a global spectacle in the offseason, MLB can’t pause a seven-month-plus season in July and August to send its best talent to Paris next year. So when? Why not shortly before Thanksgiving, when most players have had ample time to rest and even World Series combatants have had weeks off?
As it is, WBC managers have to juggle rosters and protect pitchers. This is not the best version of an international competition when big pitching names were left home — Clayton Kershaw couldn’t secure insurance — and decisions are based on workload restrictions and what the parent clubs want, not what’s good for a national team in the heat of a game. “It’s tough. You’re trying to massage innings,” said Team USA manager Mark DeRosa, who is running a dugout for the first time. “You’re trying to protect these guys. You’re trying to honor their parent clubs, do different things. There’s a lot of guys that mean a lot to these big-league ball clubs and their seasons. I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize them.”
Um, why are we doing this again?
“If this is going to go where it needs to go, then all teams, all countries would want their so-called best players,” DeRosa said. “And it shouldn’t be as difficult as it was to put a roster together. But I completely understand.”
Many pundits don’t. Not at all empathetic to Freeman, whose mother died of skin cancer when he was 10, baseball fan Keith Olbermann drew backlash with a sick tweet: “First Freddie Freeman, now Edwin Diaz. The WBC is a meaningless exhibition series designed to: get YOU to buy another uniform, to hell with the real season, and split up teammates based on where their grandmothers got laid. Call it off. Now.”
His execution was awful. His message was not.
The players and their union don’t want to squash the concept just yet, even after the Diaz disaster. “It’s been a blast. Now, obviously there’s risk involved,” Trout said. “But you know, you’re still playing baseball in spring training. So, for me, it’s just being a part of this atmosphere. It is special, means a lot to me. And, you know, I knew going in it was going to be a fun time, but I never knew it was going to be this fun. I mean, we’ve got a pretty good team in there, and it’s fun to come to the ballpark every day.”
Said the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, who shares co-ambassador duties with Trout on Team USA: “You can always try and place blame on the WBC, but that’s just a freak accident that could happen to anyone at any given time. So, to echo what Mike said, man, this is so much fun. It’s so much fun. This is way better than getting four bats on the back field, you know? So, I encourage those (players) who are watching — come, join, play. This is a lot of fun.”
Tell Edwin Diaz that it’s fun. Tell Mets manager Buck Showalter, still looking for his first World Series appearance at age 66, that it’s fun. Tell Mets fans, who thought they finally were taking over the city behind Cohen’s largesse, that any of this is fun.
For that matter, tell America that the World Baseball Classic is fun. Before a pandemic and a labor impasse pushed the 2021 event to this spring, who won the last WBC in 2017?
Who even knew?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.