"Nobody knew quite what to expect," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "But what happened, I think, is that the competition overtook the skeptics. What basically happened was that the competition itself proved that the event is meaningful."
Exactly. The quality of the baseball played swept away the doubts about the format or the commitment or the logistics. The quality of international baseball was nothing less than a revelation.
The fundamental precision, for instance, of the East Asian teams was wonderful to behold. The Japanese and the Koreans played "small ball" in the best and largest sense of the word. Japan emerged as the champion of the inaugural 2006 Classic. Korea had the tournament's best overall record at 6-1, with the misfortune of having its only loss in the semifinals to Japan.
The Dominican Republic was a semi-finalist to the surprise of no one who had observed the greatness of Dominican players in the Major Leagues. The Cuban team, whose presence initially had caused an unfortunate political controversy, proved its considerable worth on the field, reaching the finals, finishing as the Classic runner-up to Japan.
The proof of the international character of baseball was everywhere in the first Classic. The games were exciting, the fans were intense, the competition was broadcast around the world to 205 nations in 10 different languages. In all, the tournament was a tribute to the international growth of baseball, as well as encouragement for the future international growth of baseball. It was a success by all reasonable measurements but one.
That one would be the performance of the team from baseball's homeland, the United States of America. This is not said in a chauvinistic way, suggesting that America must win every competition that it enters because that's just the way it is supposed to be. No. This tournament needed a stronger performance from the nation of the game's birth, both for reasons of competitive quality, and for attracting a larger number of American fans to the competition.
Instead, what America received from its team was a 3-3 record and elimination in the second round. This did not ruin the tournament. There was plenty of success occurring for the rest of the baseball world. But this did not help the tournament.
"I just don't think we were ready, very much ready," said Davey Johnson, who will manage the American team in the 2009 Classic, and who was a coach on the 2006 team. "I don't think anybody knew what to expect. I think the biggest thing, I think a lot of the pitchers had not had enough throwing and they were not prepared and we didn't come into that format very well prepared."
If the testimony of Derek Jeter, shortstop of the New York Yankees, is of any value, and it usually is, there will be a more positive attitude about World Baseball Classic participation this time from American players.
"I think when the World Baseball Classic first started, there was a lot of skepticism, especially on the part of the players, if I want to be honest with you," Jeter said. "No one knew if it was going to work and no one knew if they wanted to play and if it would take away from the season and Spring Training.
"Then when we had the opportunity to get on the field, every player to a man was so excited to represent the country. Obviously, I have not had an opportunity to represent our country in the Olympics and this is the closest I'll get. But there is a lot of pride here. Now you hear all of the players talk in the last three years, and everybody is asking about playing in the World Baseball Classic."
The tournament format didn't require much alteration, but there has been one change that will clarify the competition. The Classic is shifting from a round-robin to a double-elimination format. This will eliminate the rather cumbersome set of tiebreaker rules that exceeded the mathematical abilities of many observers, and some of the participants, in 2006. This change moves the tournament into the area of winning and losing on the field, as opposed to winning and losing while adding and/or subtracting run differentials. This is a good thing.
Anybody who followed the first World Baseball Classic is waiting with eager anticipation for the second World Baseball Classic. The international competition was a treat for baseball fans of all nations, and there is no reason to expect that it will be diminished in its second try. A better level of competition from Team USA is not an absolute necessity for this tournament to survive, but it would be both suitable and helpful.