March 12, 2013

Tom Caron: World Baseball Classic a good idea with brutal timing

FORT. MYERS, Fla. – Red Sox fans flock south each late winter and spring to get an early peek at the baseball team they'll watch in the summer.

The results of these Grapefruit League games don't matter. Fans come to Florida to catch a glimpse of what their favorite players look like.

Fans want to see their favorite teams' best players in action, but at parks around Florida and Arizona this spring some of the game's top stars weren't in the starting lineups for their games. They weren't even in camp.

They were gone to play pre-season playoff games in the third annual World Baseball Classic.

That's why Mitch Maier was the starting right fielder for Boston Saturday – because Shane Victorino was representing the USA in its game against Italy in Phoenix.

The WBC is good for baseball. It hasn't been a huge hit in this country, but is wildly popular in other nations. It celebrates the game's global growth and shows that the best players in the world care about the game.

If you doubt that players want to win the Classic, google the brawl between Mexico and Canada over the weekend. Alfredo Aceves did his best Shawn Thornton impersonation against a team with more than a few former hockey players on the roster.

Passion or not, the WBC is a good idea, but poorly executed.

The timing is brutal. Since its inception, baseball executives have questioned what taking part in these games do to pitchers. The 2009 Classic ruined Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Boston. He threw far too many meaningful pitches far too early and never recovered.

It's not just pitchers who get hurt in these games. The Yankees lost Mark Teixeira for eight to 10 weeks when he suffered a wrist injury taking swings for Team USA last week.

No one in Boston is mourning New York's loss, but you'd better believe Brian Cashman and company aren't pleased with the loss of a major home-run threat.

The WBC also takes its toll on players who don't get injured. Victorino should be spending time with his new club in Fort Myers. The same for Aceves.

Teams that go all the way to the Classic finals won't finish until March 19 in San Francisco, giving players on those teams less than two weeks to reunite with their big-league clubs.

Baseball would be better served following the lead of the NHL.

Hockey has long been able to integrate Olympic participation into the regular-season schedule.

Every four years the league shuts down for an extended All-Star break, allowing pro stars to participate in the games.

Imagine the WBC being held over a seven- or nine-day period in mid-July. The games would be held at a time when there is no competition from the NBA, NHL or college sports.

They would come at a point when interest in baseball is peaking.

More importantly, they would be played when players are truly in mid-season form. Pitchers will have built up longer pitch counts, players will be better conditioned.

It would be difficult for Major League Baseball to shut down for a week, but a few scheduled doubleheaders every four years won't break the bank.

And it would be a price worth paying if Bud Selig and the rest of the game's leaders are truly behind the WBC.

In the meantime, teams and fans will keep fingers crossed in the days ahead as the WBC rolls on, hoping they don't lose a key player for the start of the season.

The mantra in spring training is always "get ready and stay healthy."

It's that much tougher to stay healthy when you are playing for a championship in March.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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