The World Baseball Classic is not the Olympics. It is not the World Cup. It is not the All-Star Game. But it certainly is more important and compelling than a split-squad Cactus League game in front of 4,763 spring breakers working on their tans in Mesa.
The players on most of the participating teams already know this. The 2009 final between Japan and Korea was one of the more exciting, intense games I've seen in recent years. The players and the sellout crowd (54,846) at Dodger Stadium seemed to regard it on par with a World Series game.
Hopefully, American players and fans will come to appreciate it, too, when the tournament is held for the third time in March. A big help would be the U.S. team finally reaching the finals to generate the same excitement and pride that so many other countries have felt in the previous tournaments.
Some fans might be disappointed by the lack of some of baseball's biggest names on the U.S. provisional roster released Thursday, such as Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Mike Trout. But there are still plenty of stars, including recent MVP and Cy Young winners. David Wright, Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, R.A. Dickey, Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips -- those names read a little like a starting lineup in a fantasy league. Depth is a bit of a concern, although that can mean Team USA manager Joe Torre might not be pressured to shuttle players in and out of the lineup to satisfy egos.
This year's bullpen also looks strong and deep enough that even Tony La Russa would be able to find enough arms.
Nothing against Buck Martinez or Davey Johnson, who managed the U.S. in 2006 and 2009, but Torre should bring a level of respect and success to the team that will help generate pride in competing in the WBC.
Indeed, Phillips said on a conference call that he initially went back and forth about accepting the WBC invitation until a conversation with Torre got him excited about it.
"It's something I can always say to my kids and their kids and my whole family, that I played for my country," he said.
That's the feeling that will grow the tournament. After going a lackluster 7-7 over the previous two WBC tournaments, the U.S. needs to show a level of competitiveness and spirit to generate excitement from fans and jealousy from the players who chose not to take part -- to convince other players in spring training that competing in the next WBC (in 2017) should be a goal, and to make fans start printing up WBC brackets for their office pools.
Rather than focus on the few big names missing, fans should rally around the players who will represent America against the rest of the baseball nations.
Look, I can understand why players would want to avoid the WBC if they are young or journeymen trying to establish themselves with a team. Their priority is getting a major league roster spot, and playing games for another team for three weeks during spring training might not help them get there.
I also understand why Trout and Bryce Harper would choose to sit out. They were the best rookies in the game last season, but they are still very young and inexperienced when it comes to spring training. I can see why they wouldn't want to mess with the routine when all eyes will be on them this season watching for the dreaded sophomore slump.
And I understand why fans are more concerned about their favorite team being ready for Opening Day than about the U.S. winning the WBC. But the two are not mutually exclusive aims. In fact, the WBC can help with regular-season preparations.
Everyone agrees that spring training is much longer than necessary (and they really agree with that by the third week of March). How does exiting Grapefruit and Cactus League games early to go play an afternoon round of golf help a player get ready for the season?
The WBC, however, provides players with the chance to replace the monotony of spring training with the excitement of pulling on their country's jersey. Simply put, participating in the WBC allows players to better prepare themselves for Opening Day by playing harder and at a more competitive level than spring training.
As Jayson Stark points out, fears regarding the WBC are unjustified. Although some players suffer injuries in the WBC, they do so at a lesser rate than players who simply go through spring training.
So there are few reasons to avoid the WBC and many reasons to embrace it. Which should be the goal for the players on this team: not only to represent their nation well but also to show their fellow countrymen how exciting the WBC can be.
As I said, the World Baseball Classic is not the World Cup. But neither was the World Cup when it started. Interest builds over time. It also builds when a team wins. And with Braun, Wright, Dickey, Jones, Kris Medlen and the others on the roster, this would be a good time for the U.S. to start building that interest.