Let’s Make the World Baseball Classic Great Again

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When does the World Baseball Classic start? Where is Canada playing? Who is in their group?

I assure you that I have absolutely no idea the answers to any of these questions. 

Granted, I’ve never exactly been a Canada Baseball obsessive — mostly an effect of my pushing back for years against fans braying for the Blue Jays to sign Canadians just for the sake of it — but that’s hardly the only reason why. The Canada-USA game in the 2009 WBC was the high water mark for baseball experience at Rogers Centre for literally the entire period from the 1994 strike until the Blue Jays’ buzz returned after trade deadline of 2015. The World Baseball Classic can be a pretty special thing!

And yet… it’s… uh… not.

Or at the very least it doesn’t feel like it is to me. And it sure doesn’t seem like it is to a lot of the players, either.

Oh, sure, lots of guys love playing for their countries, and I’m sure Russell Martin is disappointed that he’s not going to be able to go play shortstop in the red and white because of some insurance issue related to his secret off-season knee surgery. But Canada’s roster is grim, thanks largely to all kinds of high profile absences — Votto, Taillon, Paxton, Saunders, Lawrie (if he still counts) — and mostly the whole thing feels like something of a chore.

A chore we’ll all warm up to, I’m sure — a visit to the in-laws’ house that you dread all week, but then it turns out there’s booze and everybody has a pretty alright time nonetheless, even if it isn’t the thing that anybody wishes they were doing — but a chore nonetheless.

What do we wish we were doing? How could the WBC be better? It’s not an easy question to answer.

The demands of the MLB season on pitchers, the fact that their arms are so valuable and fragile, their need for routine, and the relentless regular season schedule makes it basically impossible to do a true best-on-best tournament of nations like we see in the MLB playoffs. Playing the WBC during Spring Training is almost the only way for it to even sniff a chance at featuring a few of the best pitchers in the world — unless the tournament was played by players on non-playoff teams in October (which MLB would find problematic for obvious reasons), or exclusively by minor leaguers in September, spring is the only time of the year when pitchers are going to be allowed by their clubs to pitch in meaningless games, and only because they were going to have to be doing it anyway.

With one small exception: the All-Star break. 

Of course, pitchers only throw an inning or two, at most, in the All-Star Game, so you’d still be dealing with watered down rosters and consternation from parent clubs if you tried to squeeze in WBC games at that point on the schedule. And it’s not like you could squeeze in a full tournament during that small window. 

But you could do something

I’m just spitballing here, and there are probably reasons why this wouldn’t work, but what I would propose is something perhaps like the UEFA Nations League, which is a European soccer tournament, spread out across the calendar, that is proposed to begin after the 2018 World Cup. In it, nations will be separated into tiers, and there will be promotion and relegation between each. 

A format like this could save the World Baseball Classic. Shit, it could maybe even save the All-Star Game, too. Here’s how it would work if we were to do it this year:

We’ll take the top eleven countries based on something called their WBSC rankings, and separate them into tiers. Currently the top thee nations are Japan, the USA, and South Korea. We’ll put them in what we’ll call Group One — the Championship Group. We’ll also put the winners of the 2013 WBC, the Dominican Republic (who, oddly, are ranked 13th), into that group.

Group Two is the next four countries by WBSC rank: Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. Group Three is Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia.

There are four other teams that have qualified for the 2017 tournament — China, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Israel — and we’ll make them Group Four.

At some point on the calendar (I don’t really care when, as long as it’s between the All-Star break and Spring Training), have the teams in Group Four play a mini tournament. If it were me, I’d maybe even skip the round robin stuff and just play two semi-finals, a third place game, and a final. But however you do it, the team that loses the third place game goes back into the pool and has to re-qualify for their place in the next tournament. The team that wins the group will move into Group Three next time.

In the spring, you do the same thing with Group Two and Group Three. The country that finishes fourth in Group Three moves down a tier next time, and in that tournament will be replaced in Group Three by the team that just won Group Four. The Group Three winners and Group Two losers will switch places in the next event, etc.

Then, instead of the All-Star Game, you do the same with Group One. You have two semi-finals on the Tuesday instead of the Home Run Derby, then the next day you have the relegation game between the two semi-final losers, and the championship between the two winners.

Easy.

The amount of time players are being asked to be away from their teams is minimized this way, the number of extraneous innings pitchers are being asked to throw is barely a blip, and spreading the tournament across the calendar this way works because the better the tier you’re in, the more likely it is that you’re going to have your best players available to you.

While that might be unfair to the teams lower down the ladder, and doing it during MLB’s All-Star break could hamper players based overseas, it sure as hell would make for some great, meaningful action during the All-Star break, and I think would give us a much truer picture of which team is the best in the world.

Shit, you could do it every year.

Imagine if Canada got into Group One — do you think Votto or Martin or anybody else who wasn’t injured would find a way to skip those games under this format?

Like I say, I’m probably missing something here — like what happens if the USA gets relegated out of the top group — but there is absolutely an appetite for top level international baseball, and the way the WBC is now doesn’t seem to be satiating it. What have they got to lose?

In the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to find other ways to enjoy the event…

YEAHHHH?? LET’S DO IT???? PLAYOFFS????