Open Letter to Major League Baseball Players

Some very interesting and relevant points about the upcoming World Baseball Classic with a plea to participating players to change their minds.

Dear Major Leaguers -

Hope your off-season has been fun, healthy and productive. What I am about to write is not addressed to all of you, just the select group heading to the World Baseball Classic.

With all due respect, don't go.

This is not a political message, although an event like this reeks of divisive jingoism, it is a baseball fan's point of view. For as much as Bud Selig dreams that leaving a legacy of global baseballism will overpower the consistent parade of public relation gaffes and moments of ineptitude that has marked his reign, you can do more for the game by not participating.

The more or less official rationale for the WBC is to promote grassroots development in traditional and non-traditional baseball nations, increase global interest and introduce new fans and players to the game. What is not mentioned is that by holding the WBC in March it also compensates for the fact that baseball was booted from the Olympics and only has the NCAA Final Four basketball to compete with on the world stage (and yet the semifinal games have been scheduled on a March Madness Saturday during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament).

It is that timing issue that is the crux of my concern. Baseball was booted from the Olympics because the major leagues won't stop play in mid-season to allow players the opportunity to participate. Seeing the best and the brightest of kids off from college, the retired, and the chronically unemployed play on the world stage for gold medals had very little appeal for the Olympic organizers or for fans. So MLB created this event in the hopes of building their own stage. After this year's event, the plan is for the next World Baseball Classic to be played in 2009, with subsequent tournaments taking place once every four years thereafter.

Why am I against major leaguers participating? First, and foremost, injuries. You tell me what you will remember more in June, the team that finishes second in this event or if Albert Pujols is out for the season if he tears an ACL? Which is more important who wins Pool D because of good pitching or if the AL West champion is determined because a WBC participating pitcher has nothing left in his arm after the All-Star break?

There were a little over 175 major leaguers who originally signed up last year to participate. Each roster consists of about 60 players now, and that will be reduced to 30 for the actual tournament. Slowly but surely the players themselves are making the de-selection as the reality of what they signed up for sinks in. The latest is Ron Villone who would have pitched for
Italy. Villone was acquired by the Yankees in December and this is what he said in interviews last Friday, "The World Baseball Classic is a great idea. After all these years waiting to be a Yankee, I think I'm just going to step away from that and concentrate on being here. I've probably got to look out for myself, my family and the Yankees. They come first." The same is true for Twins catcher Joe Mauer who is bowing out according to his general manager Terry Ryan. "It's a decision that Joe made," Ryan said. "He thinks he's better off preparing for the season, and he'll be well-received."

That doesn't sound selfish, that sounds smart. As smart as Mariano Rivera who was included on
Panama's 60-man provisional roster, and said he won't pitch for Panama because he simply won't be ready. The Yankees have taken a slow approach when it comes to Rivera's preseason throwing the last few years and this is the antithesis. As smart as Nomar Garciaparra who was on the Mexico roster and said through the Dodgers, "While I am honored to have been asked to participate, at this point, I believe it is really important for me to concentrate on the year ahead," he said. "Given all that I have been through with my health the past couple of years, and now with changing both teams and positions, I feel this is the time for me to focus on doing my best for the Dodgers, my new teammates and the wonderful fans in Los Angeles."

Buster Olney says on, "I think there is a significant portion of the players who really would prefer if this thing just went away. But they're in a bind: If they say publicly that they don't want to play, they'll be accused of being unpatriotic (and there are a lot of Democrats who know what that feels like). So for now, they'll go along with it, like a herd of sheep. But you can bet there are going to be a whole lot of phantom injuries in late February -- slightly strained groins and such."

I am particularly concerned about injuries to pitchers and apparently so is MLB which has instituted these pitch-count rules:
A pitcher must:
. Not pitch until a minimum of four days have passed since he last pitched, if he threw 50 or more pitches when he last pitched;
. Not pitch until a minimum of one day has passed since he last pitched, if he threw 30 or more pitches when he last pitched;
. Not pitch until a minimum of one day has passed since any second consecutive day on which the pitcher pitched; and
. Throw no more than:
-- 65 pitches per game in Round 1 of the tournament;
-- 80 pitches per game in Round 2 of the tournament; and
-- 95 pitches per game in the semifinals and final of the tournament.
A pitcher may exceed the maximum per-game limits in order to complete a batter's plate appearance.

What this doesn't take into account is how hard a pitcher throws and the variety of pitches the pitcher delivers. For example, will a pitcher's arm be ready to throw 94-98 mph on March 7th? How ready will that arm be on March 8th to throw hard stuff and mix in breaking balls? Are you successfully representing your country if you hold back? Are you appropriately reflecting your responsibility to your employers, teammates and fans if you throw too hard too early? Finally, even if you successfully make it through March, will your arm have the same zip it needs to win the pennant in September?

Two Atlanta Braves pitchers understand the answers to these questions. Tim Hudson, who spent a month on the disabled list last season with a strained muscle in his left side, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "It's an honor to represent your country, but as a pitcher it's harder to be where you need to be that early in March. I have to put what's best for my team first.,"
Hudson told the newspaper. "I'm not 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule, like I should be if I was going to [the WBC]. . . . Nobody would have felt worse than me if I'd gone out and gotten hurt in the WBC and not been ready for the season." Either does John Smoltz who backed out two weeks ago, for the same reasons.

Jayson Stark in an excellent column on quotes one GM who said, "It's a great idea -- if you're not associated with a team. It's a great idea if you're Bud Selig or somebody in the commissioner's office. But if you're associated with a team and your best player is going to break his leg, you'd rather it happen on your own watch -- not theirs. If we lose our No. 1 starter or our best player for the year, we can't replace those guys, and it would be a devastating blow to what we're trying to do."

Now there are some players who should be playing because they are not associated with a team; take pitcher Ramiro Mendoza.
Mendoza returned to the major leagues in September following shoulder surgery in January and threw one inning. He pitched during the offseason in the Venezuelan Winter League. He will pitch for Venezuela and hope that he impresses enough that someone will be interested in him for a major league roster. Then there's Sammy S*sa. S*sa who is seriously considering retiring from baseball instead of accepting an offer from the Washington Nationals. S*sa, 37, was released by the Orioles after last season, when he hit .221 with 14 home runs and 45 RBI and as many strikeouts (84) as hits (84), in 102 games and once again was a negative presence in the clubhouse. Here is a guy who may end his career 12 homers shy of 600 because nobody really wants to the risk of having him on their roster.

S*sa like many players at the ends of their careers, thinks he has plenty left. So why doesn't this all-time home run leader among Latin American players play for his native
Dominican Republic and show prospective teams how much he has left? Well, most likely, he has nothing left and S*sa is looking for one more guaranteed contract before some team finds that out for themselves. Then again, did I mention each player on the provisional roster (submitted on Jan. 17, 2006), is subject to pre-competition anti-doping testing. By the way Barry B*nds also withdrew.

I couldn't agree more with this GM quoted by Stark, "All of us have a responsibility to [promote] the betterment of the game and do what's good for the game, and we all understand that," says one skeptical GM. "But at the end of the day, I still wish they were doing this in November."

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams sarcastically told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I think the WBC is one of the most exciting events. It will be good for the game. What else am I supposed to say?'' One major league manager I spoke to says "he hates it" when I asked him his feelings about the WBC.

So what's the alternative?

Well, right now I would support those who are in favor of a Davis Cup draw in November and extending the All-Star break for a full-week to play the final rounds. As for the players, who are told they are playing for their countries, for pride, and for baseball, they are many things they can do that will have an even greater effect.

Let's see a Dominican contribute one game's paycheck and give it to his country with the money to be used for playing fields and equipment. Let's see an Australian or an Italian sponsor the flight of some kids to the
US to see some major league games. Let's see some Americans do the same, plus visit some injured veterans in hospitals as they return from Iraq. There is no end to what ballplayers can do for their country and build goodwill for their sport. But mostly, we need them to play. Following 9/11 this country rallied around baseball and seemingly so did the world.

So, head to spring training and do your job by giving me a great season. That's good enough for me.

Billy-Ball is a baseball column by Bill Chuck who enjoys the fun of the game and, more important, enjoys making fun of the game. Bill's quirky look at the idiosyncrasies — and the idiots — of the sport is published Monday through Friday during the baseball season. For your free subscription, click here.

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