DETROIT -- The idea hit Gary Sheffield like a fastball in the ribs. Leave spring training for an international baseball tournament? For games that mean nothing?
The Yankees right fielder shook his head.
"Why should I get hurt just to prove we're better than the Dominicans or whomever else?" he asked the other day. "Why should I do that?"
That is the core problem with the ambitious, but probably ill-conceived idea of the World Baseball Classic that baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been pushing. It is going to be difficult to get significant major leaguers to want to play. And without the big leaguers nobody is going to care about the tournament.
Baseball is trying to install a sense of nationalism among its players, to varying degrees of success. This week's All Star Game was draped in an international theme, less about the traditional American vs. the National League and more about pitting Caribbean and Central American countries against each other. The home run hitting contest was supposed to generate more interest because it had players from Canada, South Korea and Venezuela. Instead it became, what all such things become: an individual competition.
The built-in flaw with an international baseball tournament is there's nothing in it for the players.
Someone asked Sheffield if he didn't feel a sense of nationalism. What about the Olympics? he was asked. Doesn't he believe in the Olympics? Doesn't he believe in playing for his country?
"There's a big difference," he said. "If I won a medal for my country for the Olympics that's different. This is something you just made up."
There's nothing in the structure right now that won't make this competition anything more than a series of glorified spring training games. Since this is scheduled to take place in early March, the pitchers will be on strict pitch counts, probably going no more than two or three innings in any appearance. Chances are they won't be throwing full speed and may not even use everything in their arsenal. After all, spring training is for getting ready to play for the team that will pay you millions of dollars. It's not for blowing out arms in the name of national pride.
And the first time someone pulls a hamstring or rips up a knee diving for a ball he would have left alone in a regular spring game, the exodus of stars will begin. This is just the reality of where baseball players are these days.
The problems with the global baseball tournament are even more pronounced than in the NBA, where most of the top players no longer seem interested in playing for the Olympic team. The Olympics at least take place after the season is over. They take the place of a summer league. Plus basketball players usually play basketball every day. Pitchers do not often spend much of their offseasons throwing, trying to save the wear on their arms for the days that really count.
Selig has acknowledged the complaints against his idea. Yet he is pushing onward in the belief that he is on the cutting edge of something great.
"Anything new, particularly in this sport, is difficult," he said. "I think back to 1993 when we passed the wild card. It was like we were ruining the national pastime. Well, I shudder to think where the heck we would have been the last five years without the wild card. There's no doubt in my mind that someday the World Classic will produce results that will be as constructive. I don't think any of us understand how big this is going to be.
"Two decades from now this will really have contributed huge change to the sport."
Few players have been outspoken about the proposed tournament, which is supposed to last 18 days in March and take place in venues as far away as Japan, before eventually finishing in major league ballparks. Sheffield was one the few to voice his displeasure, but he insisted that "a lot of guys feel this way but they aren't going to say it like I will."
For the most part, the bulk of players have been ambivalent, saying it sounds interesting but they would need to get more information. Very few have said they are certain to play.
Selig, looking at marketing the game internationally the way basketball and football have, dreams of selling his game in places like China.
The real question is: Do his players care if he does?
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