Inside sports business
The United States finally winning the World Baseball Classic might be just what this country needs when it comes to that tournament taking priority among those at the sport’s top levels here.
Up until now, the WBC has been viewed largely as a nuisance by Major League Baseball teams. We’ve become accustomed to debating whether teams such as the Mariners will even allow staff ace Felix Hernandez to pitch for Venezuela, or reliever Edwin Diaz to work the final for Puerto Rico.
And then, there are the, mostly, American players that skip the WBC altogether, or gripe about it interfering with preparation for the regular season. That contrasts with many Latin American and Japanese players who view it as almost a sacred duty to represent their nations.
Why are we so ho-hum about it here? Sure, the WBC’s timing, right before the MLB season, is a financial risk concern for teams and a pain to some major leaguers whose livelihoods depend more on beating the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs than Japan, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
But Dominican and Venezuelan baseball players seem to have no issue suiting up for their country. I’ve got some theories as to why there’s more reluctance from American players.
For one, the U.S. is so good at sports internationally that these competitions may not seem as big a deal. Sure, winning the overall medals title at the Summer Olympics is cause for pride, but Americans hardly care whether they take home gold, silver or bronze in most individual events.
In other countries, like Jamaica, where medals are fewer and the nation much smaller, taking gold in individual sprinting events carries as much significance as if they’d won the overall medals count.
And then, there’s the heritage.
Baseball simply doesn’t have the international tournament legacy that sports like hockey and especially soccer carry. Major League Soccer teams, for instance, just interrupted their regular season to loan players to various national teams for FIFA World Cup qualifying matchups.
Sure, MLS teams generally don’t pay stars as much as MLB teams. But big-spending European squads go through huge angst when, say, Barcelona lends out Lionel Messi to the Argentine national side and watches him get hurt.
Those overseas teams take out huge insurance policies to protect investments in Messi and others of his elite stature. But they loan the players anyway, accepting FIFA rules that state it’s how things are done. There’s a prestige to international competition that takes precedence over leagues in that sport.
“If I had to bring it to one very simple idea, it probably would be the World Cup,’’ Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer said. “The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. Bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Olympics. And every kid growing up who played soccer in every country around the world wants to score the winning goal for their country to win the World Cup.’’
Hanauer doubts his own players would be thrilled to suit up for a “friendly’’ in Azerbaijan if they could avoid it. But the prestige of major tourneys is always there and something teams must adapt to.
Hanauer admits to nervous moments when players give “extra mileage’’ to national sides during times they’d be better off resting. Sounders forward Jordan Morris reinjured a previously sprained ankle last Sunday, but was on a plane to join the U.S. Men’s National Team that night and was still considered for play Friday in a key qualifier against Honduras right up until being a late scratch. He has since been returned to the Sounders.
“Our medical staff is in contact with their medical staff,’’ Hanauer said. “Our administrative staff is in touch with their administrative staff. We have a really, really good relationship with (Sounders coach) Brian Schmetzer to (USMNT coach) Bruce Arena. So, we feel as though the communication is very good.’’
And it works both ways, he adds. The U.S. team is constantly monitoring Sounders games to see whether Morris, Clint Dempsey and others are being cared for and healthy enough to help them.
Hanauer doesn’t begrudge players looking ahead to international competition — even in-season.
“Again, when it comes down to it, there doesn’t seem to be an honor greater than playing for your nation,’’ he said.
Having growing up in Canada, I can tell you it’s similar for hockey players. Though hockey’s World Cup is relatively new, the Canada Cup and Challenge Cup competitions of the 1970s and 1980s were a huge deal, later replaced in prominence by the Winter Olympics when the NHL finally sent its best players.
Many NHL players, from no matter what country, were groomed to think of the annual World Junior Hockey Championships as the biggest thing in their lives prior to turning pro. The fact the NHL is now balking at participating in the next Winter Olympics is more about a financial dispute than players opposing it.
Hockey players, like their soccer counterparts, almost universally accept it’s their duty to put on national team jerseys.
And all MLB players might eventually feel just as passionate about the WBC, especially now that the U.S. has finally won it. And if they — and their powerful union — are ever completely onboard, it’s only a matter of time before American-owned MLB teams are pulled reluctantly into soccer-like compliance.