It is March 16, 2013, in Miami Fl, USA. It is the day that a young catcher, Spencer Kieboom, gets to play in front of the largest crowd he has ever seen. He knows that this game is on the world stage, and that he has a chance to help vault his team into the finals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. As he steps to the plate, his teammates yell “Happy Birthday,” as he has just turned twenty-two-years-old this very day.
Kieboom steps to the plate and digs in, as flash bulbs pop all around Marlins Park. He is as nervous as he has ever been, but there is no place on earth he would rather be. The pitcher is ready, and Kieboom peers in as the starter for the United States comes to the set. He steps into the windup and the game has begun. A 91-mph pitch that seems to dance around like a honey bee, drunk on tulip nectar, comes sailing across the plate. Kieboom is frozen as the Ump calls “Strike one.” He didn’t know whether to swing, laugh or cry when he saw that pitch coming. He had never seen a knuckleball in his life, let alone a 91-mph knuckler from reigning US NL, Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey.
I love the name “Netherlands.” It sounds like a land far away (perhaps from a J.R.R. Tolkein book), and a land where one would not think to find baseball, let alone Major League quality baseball. The truth is that the Netherlands are one of Europe’s premier baseball nations, winning the European Baseball Championship 20 of the last 32 years, including 5 of the last 7. They finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They defeated Cuba to win the most recent IBAF Baseball World Cup in 2011, the first European team to do so. In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the Kingdom of the Netherlands advanced to round two, when they defeated the Dominican Republic twice in dramatic fashion. Is it me, or is anyone else wondering why they never even heard of the Netherlands National Baseball Team?
In its third tournament since 2006, The World Baseball Classic is changing all that and bringing baseball to the mainstream of 32 or more separate Cities and Nations. Before researching the WBC, I admit I did not take it seriously at all. It was a nuisance distraction, that interfered with my team’s and player’s ability to get ready for the 2013 season. Everyday I read articles about this or that player opting out of the tournament, citing reasons from injury rehab, to durability, to the need to focus on reversing the results of a down season. I thought that the average MLB player just didn’t want to take a couple weeks off from Spring Training to play against obscure teams from around the globe. I also feared injury, that could potentially derail my Fantasy Baseball Teams for an exhibition I thought was about as meaningful as the MLB Allstar Game. I was wrong.
Mike Bauman of MLB.com states that when covering the WBC in 2006 and 2009, he found all teams playing fundamentally sound, precise baseball, played the way the game was meant to be played. He found the competition to be better than he thought it would be, with the excitement and drama of the MLB playoffs and World Series. He also stated that the WBC is a forum for appreciation and encouragement of the international and general growth of baseball.
Interestingly enough, the United States hasn’t even made it to the finals, let alone won the tournament. That is with a roster full of current and former All-Stars. Many of the international coaches and managers were happily surprised by the non-nationalistic appreciation the US teams showed for the tournament. There was a fear that the US teams would show arrogance and be expected to dominate the tournament, considering it is an US invented game and national pastime. That being said, the US team is more motivated than ever to bring the trophy back home.
The United States GM, Joe Garagiola Jr., has asked Joe Torre to come out of retirement and don the uniform one more time, to reverse the US teams fortunes. Torre personally spoke at length with each of the players invited to play for the US. He only wanted players who were excited to play, and showed desire, determination and pride in playing for the USA. He said that he learned this method of recruiting from Corey D. Roberts of Major League Fantasy Sports (Ok, so I used some artistic licence there). The team he assembled has an All-Star at every position, with a starting 9 of Joe Mauer, Mark Teixiera, Brandon Phillips, David Wright, Jimmy Rollins; and an outfiield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton. R.A. Dickey heads a pitching staff of Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Kris Medlen. Craig Kimbrel heads a very deep and talented bullpen, which is imperative, as pitching limits are strictly enforced. Reserves include Ben Zobrist, Shane Victorino and Mike Lucroy. The International community needs to be nervous, as the fifth starting spot is being held for some kid named Verlander from the Tigers. He has agreed to play, if his arm responds well after the winter layoff. Mark Texiera is back for his third Classic, and is the only remaining member of the 2006 team that included Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter.
The Milwaukee Brewers lead this year’s entry with 14 players between the active and reserve rosters. Manager Bob Melvin says he fully supports his players that want to participate and represent their country. Dusty Baker is also a big supporter, and was honored that two of his players were selected to play for the US (Votto may be a late scratch as he is recovering from injury). Brandon Phillips stated that he was honored to risk injury, wear and tear, and veering from his usual spring routine for the chance to represent his country. Ben Zobrist said that this honor is a “career dream and career goal” to represent the US. He said that Joe Torre is expecting the players to arrive more game-ready than US teams of the past. Zobrist quipped that he will start training early, so he does not look stupid on the world stage. When US first base coach and former MLB manager, Larry Bowa, was interviewed, he stated that he would gladly have played for the US, had there been a WBC when he was playing. When asked if he feels that same passion as a coach, he responded, “I’m not going there just to hit some fungoes.”
The US will have their work cut out for them again. The field is led by two-time repeating WBC Champ, Japan. While Dice K Matsuzaka was the MVP of both of those championships, neither Japan nor their 2009 opponent in the finals, Korea, nor international force Taipei, boasts a single MLB player this time around. Teams are warned by the experts, however, to expect those three Asian teams to play a fundamentally sound, nearly error-free brand of baseball. The Dominican team boasts 10 current or recent MLB All-Stars, including the best starting infield in the world. Imagine coming out of your draft after the first 5 rounds with Cano, Hanley, Reyes, Beltre and Encarnation, and an outfield of Nelson Cruz, Melky and Carlos Gomez, with Volquez and Rodney among the arms.
Other prominent MLB players include Miguel Cabrera of Venezuela, Adrian Gonzalez and Yovanni Gallardo of Mexico; Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina of Puerto Rico; and Justin Morneau, Jameson Taillon and Phillipe Aumont of Canada. When interviewed, Morneau got a bit choked up, as he explained how much emotion is involved in playing for his country. This will be his third WBC. He claimed, “I get major goose bumps when I hear the Canadian Anthem, no matter what country we are playing in.”
As for that little country, the Netherlands, besides starting catcher Spencer Kieboom, they also boast two of the highest ranked prospects in MLB with Jurikson Profar and Xander Boegarts. They also have Jon Schoop, Andrelton Simmons, Andruw Jones, Roger Bernardina, Jair Jurrjens, and Shairon Martis (who pulled off a no-hitter in the 2009 WBC at the age of 19).
The WBC is not exempt from a little controversy as well. The Cuban team will be playing without four of their top baseball products. Because they defected from Cuba, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Dayan Viciedo and Jorge Soler are not welcome to play for the homeland team. Japan was threatening to boycott the games last July. They felt that as the two time champion, and a country who’s businesses have contributed one of the highest amounts to the games, they should receive a larger share of the revenue. Major League Baseball and the MLBPA argued that they have set up, sponsored and borne nearly all the cost of putting on the tournament. A tentative agreement was reached in September, which will hopefully not cause them to miss the tournament. Japan should have hired Scott Boras to represent them. A ticket and travel pass to the six games to be played in the Tokyo Dome are on sale now, and are selling for 72,000 Japanese Yen each. I don’t know what a yen is worth, but 72,000 of them sounds like a lot of revenue to share.
There is so much more information, and this piece did not even cover what the WBC means to the people of the countries that have teams in the tournament. For more on that, and a complete list of all the venues, schedules, ticket prices and full rosters of all 28 teams go to http://web.worldbaseballclassic.com/wbc/2013/history/. At a time when our game is being sullied by the steroid scandals and other “cheaters,” and there are so many other world problems to deal with, the WBC is a wonderful outlet that can entertain, motivate and move us into a new enthusiasm for “our” sport. There are worse things to worry about than the fact that Oliver Perez is the only lefty on the Mexican team. On the bright side, with a name like Kieboom, how can that kid miss?