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Fernando Martinez and the Astros show why the World Baseball Classic still has so far to go

Jan 18, 2013, 6:43 AM EST

Fernando Martinez Getty Getty Images

Fernando Martinez stands as one of several players in the mix to make the Houston Astros’ outfield. But he has more up against him in that quest than just competition from Rick AnkielJustin Maxwell, J.D. Martinez and Brandon Barnes. He has up against him his participation in the World Baseball Classic, where he will play for Spain.

His general manager, Jeff Luhnow, admitted as much. From Brian McTaggart’s story at Astros.com:

“The big challenge is … a guy like Fernando Martinez, who’s trying to make our club, [being] gone for an extended period of time. I think that potentially hurts him, even if he does well in the Classic,” Luhnow said. “It hurts him because he’s not there with our coaches, being seen firsthand. It makes it a little bit more difficult. The fact he’s playing for Spain means he’s not going to be gone the whole month. Nothing against Spain, but they’re not likely to make it past the first round.”

I understand that we’re supposed to be all-in on the World Baseball Classic and that players who don’t take it seriously have the wrong attitude and are otherwise “idle heroes,”** but I’m sorry: if a general manager for a baseball team is saying that participating in it is going to have negative implications for you, you should not be playing in the WBC. If I’m Martinez’s agent I have him call the Spanish manager, say “smell you later,” and make sure my client’s butt is in Osceola County Stadium from the first day of Spring Training until the team breaks camp so as to give him the best chance to win a job.

As for what this says about the Classic itself, yes, I acknowledge that Martinez is a borderline major leaguer at best, and I acknowledge that Morosi’s point yesterday was that the big stars should be participating, not the Fernando Martinez’s of the world. But this little example is still telling with respect to the WBC’s true place in the baseball hierarchy and still explains why many big stars, quite understandably, choose not to participate.

For one thing, for Spain anyway, Fernando Martinez is a big star. He’s the best they can do in their outfield. And if the WBC is to become what Morosi and everyone who rah-rahs it wants it to be, every team has to put its best possible lineup out there. Watching all the American, Japanese, Korean, Cuban and Dominican superstars trounce the relatively empty rosters of other teams — which is what will happen if Jeff Luhnow’s sentiments are shared by GMs of other players like Martinez — will not turn this into the World Cup Part Deux, which is the ultimate aim Morosi and those who think like him about the WBC want it to be. It will keep it as a curious exhibition, best ignored until the late rounds at the most.

But more broadly, this little episode reveals that the teams and executives don’t value the WBC anywhere close to how they value the MLB season, even if they’re strongly encouraged to say they do by Major League Baseball and strongly wished to by WBC backers like Morosi. That has direct consequences for guys like Martinez, but you can’t tell me that superstars aren’t impacted by this too. They want to win in the MLB season and they want to be on the same page as their manager, their coaches and, yes, their front office.  No, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper won’t lose their jobs if they don’t play for Team USA, but it’s bleedin’ obvious that they have greater priorities and, if forced to be truthful, Jerry Dipoto and Mike Rizzo would prefer them to be in camp all spring rather than playing in the WBC.

It is not a lack of patriotism or a poor attitude that keeps all the superstars from playing in the WBC. It is the disconnect — the tremendous, tremendous gulf between the importance of the MLB season and the importance of the WBC — that keeps all the superstars from participating. And, contrary to what Morosi and other say, this gulf cannot be crossed merely by putting a nation’s colors on the uniform and simply asserting that it matters for flag and country.

**An earlier version of this post characterized Jon Paul Morosi’s criticism of players who do not participate in the WBC as one based on the players’ lack of patriotism. My reason for saying so was that it was my view, based on the entirety of his column, that he was, in fact, questioning players’ patriotism even if he did not intend to.  

In the past few hours Morosi and I have had an offline discussion in which he explained what he was getting at with yesterday’s column. Rather than lack of patriotism, he explained, he was criticizing the attitude of players who have an “insufficient perspective and awareness” of their obligations and the importance of the WBC.  While Morosi and I still likely disagree about all of this, I appreciate that questioning the patriotism of others is a serious charge and that, whatever my takeaway from Morosi’s column was, it was not his intention to do such a thing.

  1. blacksables - Jan 18, 2013 at 7:08 AM

    This isn’t an issue in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, or any of the European leagues.

    There, the owner, general managers, and managers care just as much about winning as do their American counterparts. Winning you league title is just as sweet in a foreign league as it is in the states. The management, players, and fans are all about winning a title.

    Yet somehow they make it work.

    For some people, a chance to represent their country (not for jingoistic reasons, but as a chance to honor their heritage) is more important than money. Seems like a lot of arrogance and hypocrisy on the part of American teams to scout foreign players, and then expect them to abandon their nationality because it’s now what the management wants.

    Most people outside the US are extremely proud of their country. Maybe we could learn something from them.

    • dan1111 - Jan 18, 2013 at 7:27 AM

      I don’t think you can simply boil it down to other countries being more patriotic than America. Unlike those other leagues, the MLB is the top level of baseball in the world. The goal of many baseball players from around the world is to make it to the MLB. Winning the World Series is the highest possible achievement in baseball. Thus it is a much bigger sacrifice for an MLB player to play in the classic than it is for someone in the Mexican League or Japan.

      The World Baseball Classic is a nice idea and has big aspirations, but at this point it is still a minor tournament in comparison. It is understandable that many players who have made it to the highest level in their field don’t want to risk that to participate.

      It isn’t just an issue with Americans, either: MLB players of many nationalities have chosen not to participate.

      • hernanferrea - Jan 18, 2013 at 7:50 AM

        @Dan1111: You have to understand the “culture” of the other countries. In order to achieve the goal to be a professional player in any sport you have to play for the National Team, and representing your country has pride and honor. Most players in any sport in America only has to go through schools (elementary, middle, high, college) to be Pros. There are no “sense” of pride or honor wearing the national jersey. Ask Manu Ginobilli what it means to him to play for Argentina in any competition, regardless of playing for the Spurs, just to give you an example. Nationalism has an important place on the players of those countries, and when they do, for them is way better than play the World Series. In Argentina we called “jugar por la camiseta” (play for the jersey). It’s embedded in the blood. I hope we, Americans, can transfer that passion to our kids so they become proud and honored to play for USA. Have a nice day!

      • Old Gator - Jan 18, 2013 at 12:02 PM

        It’s a little different here. There are two kinds of Americans: those who, if you wrap the flag tightly enough around something, will follow it anywhere, and those who, having figured out that flag-wrapping is usually a way to obscure profit-making (as in the case of the World Baseball Classic, for example), have become refreshingly cynical about the whole process and just won’t take the bait anymore.

      • djpostl - Jan 18, 2013 at 12:21 PM

        Gator, you missed a class.

        The ones who talk out the ass about how much they love their country…yet never do anything for her.

        They cry for war…yt never serve in the military.

        They talk about how times have changed for the worse…yet never give back to the community.

        Or in this specific case never go represent her when asked to.

      • Old Gator - Jan 18, 2013 at 4:54 PM

        Who is “her” in this case? Mrs. Bud Selig?

        Last I looked, there’s been no codicil inserted into the idiotically named Patriot Act, nor into any other congressional bill or act that I know of, making the World Baseball Classic some sort of nationally sanctioned holiday, tradition, service, duty or anything else.

        It’s not defense of the homeland. It’s not protection of any truly meaningful national interest. It’s not the Peace Corps. It’s not even the Civil Air Patrol. It doesn’t “represent” America, unless you manage to talk yourself into believing that it does – which is clearly something by which most ballplayers aren’t fooled. It’s just a public relations, profit-seeking enterprise on the part of an affiliation of corporations, proprietorships and limited partnerships known as Major League Baseball. Let’s stop confusing it with “patriotic duty” before we commodify and trivialize “love of country” to the point that you can buy it bottled at Wal-Mart. It’s got nothing to do with it – just another abuse of nationalistic reflex to make money.

      • slavetothetrafficlight - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:28 PM

        I find your “refreshing” cynicism obnoxiously excessive. Sure, the WBC is a money-making venture. So is the MLB season! So is the pennant race and World Series. What (other than nostalgic revisionist history) makes a guy’s dedication to the 2013 Houston Astros so noble and commendable? Does he owe it to Jim Crane in exchange for his salary? Does he owe it to his agent to place his (their?) career and earnings potential ahead of what may be his only opportunity to represent his country (his ability to serve in the military or anything like that having been precluded by said career)?

  2. panealvino - Jan 18, 2013 at 7:17 AM

    I think MLB needs to come up with a united stance for the WBC and to stick with it — no more of this policy of saying one thing out of one side of the mouth and another thing out of the other side.

    Either the WBC is on its own and MLB players are told they participate at their own risk, or MLB encourages it with a long-term view that expanding interest in baseball around the world is ultimately in MLB’s interest, and they come up with an arrangement to encourage the best players to participate.

    I live in Italy and attended some baseball world cup games a couple of years back and greatly enjoyed them (the food vendors in the stands were hawking espresso and a local trattoria was giving away free bruschetta in hopes of pulling people in after the game … and the baseball was entertaining as well…! It was fun to see what the crowd found interesting — they seemed to dislike called strikes and long HRs or fly ball outs, and they liked SB attempts — successful or not — and outs that involved a lot of teamwork, like a 4-5-3 double play).

    Personally, I would certainly like to see my favorite sport spread beyond North America, the Caribbean, and Japan and S. Korea, but I’m not sure what an arrangement that would encourage players to participate would look like. Maybe WBC provisions can be included in contracts or the dates can be tweaked. But even clearly and transparently encouraging them *not* to participate would make more sense to me than this double talk we’re seeing now.

  3. ctt1966 - Jan 18, 2013 at 8:21 AM

    The WBC is an event for those who are already financially secure. The rosters indicate that pretty clearly. Players that are very promising, but not even into arbitration years, are not taking the risks. And this GM does speak the truth. If trying to pick a 5th outfielder, or a 25th man, of course they are going to go with what they see, which is players in camp for the entirety of spring training.

    • blacksables - Jan 18, 2013 at 8:28 AM

      Because playing against minor leaguers and getting at most 2 plate appearances a day is better than playing in a tournament with games that mean something against the best players in the world?

      That is, if MLB would actually endorse it and not just use it as a money-maker.

      • Uncle Charlie - Jan 18, 2013 at 8:43 AM

        Do you really think that is all that spring training is? Not to mention that those “two at bates” will come against talent that is typically better than anything that will be encountered in the vast majority of WBC plate appearances.

      • hisgirlgotburrelled - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:16 AM

        He’d play against a lot more than just minor leaguers. Veterans play in spring training, too, ya know. He’ll miss games against Washington, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, teams that will be throwing a lot better pitchers than what he’ll face vs Puerto Rico. Spain probably will be 3 and done, and he probably won’t face Felix Hernandez or Edinson Volquez when they play their teams. Every at bat in the WBC for Spain is meaningless to him making the roster for Houston. Every missed at bat, and practice rep, in spring training is a missed oppurtunity to impress the coaches.

  4. jballallen - Jan 18, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    It is a complicated issue. Japan’s players want to be in the WBC but abhor that it breaks up their spring preparations — camp opens here on Feb. 1. This was the primary reason they were slow to agree to participate in the 2006 event. They wanted it in November…

    As far as teams go, the Chunichi Dragons essentially blocked their players from attending in 2009. A number of players asked to be on the squad were suddenly unavailable due to mysterious injuries. Most clubs have not been that draconian, though.

    For domestic Japanese players, the chance to have meaningful games against teams with big leaguers is otherwise non-existant. For big leaguers that issue isn’t there, although I suppose there is some element of interest in playing teams that are somewhat exotic such as Japan and South Korea. For WBC veterans playing in the majors already or moving to the majors this year, the need to cement one’s positon in the bigs is a big factor, especially in Japan where they’ve won it twice already.

  5. paperlions - Jan 18, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    The WBC simply can not be compared to the World Cup. Soccer truly is a world-wide sport, and was so BEFORE the World Cup started. Baseball is a popular game in relatively few countries, and even in many of those countries soccer is still far more important; Venezuea, Panama, or Mexico literally come to a stand still when their soccer team is playing in World Cup qualifying matches, never mind the World Cup.

    The fact is that most countries don’t play baseball and many of the players on their WBC rosters have never lived in the country. No matter how much MLB pushes, the baseball talent around the world simply isn’t sufficient to have an interesting tournament (note: interesting and entertaining are not the same thing)…..not to mention you need to play a LOT more baseball than the current WBC format to determine anything about team quality.

    It isn’t the concept that is flawed, but the distribution of talent and popularity of the sport throughout the world….and of course every GM wants their entire team in ST (there were a bunch of stories like this one during the last WBC as well), they aren’t paid by MLB, they are paid by their owner and their interests are in their own organization (as it should be).

    • Alex K - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:41 AM

      I don’t think anyone is comparing the two. This is the 3rd time they’ve played the WBC and baseball isn’t anywhere close to what soccer is as a global sport.

      That doesn’t mean that it can’t one day get to a higher level of prestige where the best in the world want to play and good players are left off because there simply isn’t room for them on the roster.

      • paperlions - Jan 18, 2013 at 10:03 AM

        That is because keep comparing it to the World Cup as a model for what it should be today (a reference made in the blog entry, and repeatedly made in comments sections), forgetting that the World Cup started as a tiny 4-team tournament. Odds are that when the World Cup started, star players and privately owned teams had similar attitudes about participation as current MLB players and teams do

        In most of the world, Baseball is less popular than soccer in the US, and most people in the US don’t pay any attention to the World Cup and pay no attention to soccer at all outside of the World Cup. The WBC is trying to present itself as something that it simply is not….mostly because people play competitive baseball in relatively few countries around the world, and few countries produce a decent number of MLB quality talent.

        Here is a list of the number of players that played in MLB last year by country:

        US 928
        DR 127
        Venezuela 86
        Canada 20
        Cuba 20
        Puerto Rico 20
        Japan 15
        Mexico 15
        Panama 8
        Australia 7
        Columbia 6
        Curacao 6
        Nicaragua 4
        Taiwan 3
        South Korea 2
        Netherlands 2
        Brazil 1
        Italy 1

        So….maybe 7 countries can field competitive teams if all of their best players play? Add to that the scheduling problems and the disparity in readiness to play baseball at full speed when the WBC is held, and it feels like an exhibition, not a competition. I’m not against the WBC, per se, just the notion that it is something other than it is.

      • Alex K - Jan 18, 2013 at 10:20 AM

        I think the World Cup is what it should aspire to be. It will take time and money, but it is not an unreasonable goal. Baseball will never be as global as soccer, but it doesn’t have to be for the WBC to succeed.

        I think the way to get it to succeed is to keep trying to field teams from the countries that don’t play as much baseball to possibly drum up interest. If it fails…who cares? It is worth a shot to see if baseball can be a more global game. More baseball players = more chances to find truly great players to enjoy watching.

  6. redlegs7 - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    It all comes down to who signs the paycheck. If you are a fringe player, making the roster should come first. I am sure some of the players from other countries would love to play for their country, as do most American ballplayers. But, winning the WS is the goal of all MLB ball players. If a MLB player gets hurt during the WBC and can’t play for a while into the season, that could hurt his chance to play, or make the team, and possibly his teams chances at a possible run at the Series.

  7. jessethegreat - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    American ignorance huh? I hate how newcomers to our great nation always refer to the land back home as “my country”.

    How dare an owner/gm want their player to put his job before playing in a round robin tournament. How dare they want to make sure that person is in the best possible position to excel in his job.

    This to me is no different than your boss expecting you to work on Sunday when all your little cronies from the block you grew up on are having a tournament with all your neighboring blocks. You like your job? And like being paid to perform it? You suck it up and do what the boss expects even if your little feelings are hurt because you don’t get to play in your little league reunion.

  8. mtr75 - Jan 18, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    The World Baseball what? Who cares.

  9. Bob Timmermann - Jan 18, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    The WBC cannot become the World Cup because baseball’s international governing body, the IBAF, has about 1/1,000,000th the authority of soccer’s governing body, FIFA. The IBAF is headquartered in Switzerland and I doubt that any of the 30 MLB owners can even name the president of the organization. Or its name. Or where it’s located. FIFA, which has a level of corruption that is right out of the Gilded Age, dominates soccer.

    In soccer, schedules for domestic leagues are set up with specific breaks for international tournaments, with a few exceptions (most notably the African Cup of Nations.) If a national team requests a club to send a player back home to play for them in a tournament, they pretty much have to do it or face serious sanctions. A player can ask to no longer to be considered for international play, but there is rarely any turning back from that decision.

  10. djpostl - Jan 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    My biggest knock on the WBC is that teams kind of have a quasi-science on spring training.

    They know that Player A needs “X” amount of at-bats to be ready at the start of the season.

    They know that Player B needs to work 30 pitches, then 45 pitches, then 60 pitches per start and so on, timing it so they are near 100 in their last start leading into April.

    They know that a certain reliever needs to work a couple of back-to-backs in a 5 or 6 day stretch the last week to prep himself.

    The WBC throws this stuff out of whack, often times forcing guys who aren’t up to full speed to play at full speed.

    If MLB is the slightest bit serious about it they’d have it mid-season, with exhibition games for the MLB teams as it went on to keep “limber” for when the season resumed.

    But this won’t ever happen.

    So all of this talk about how they view this as a big thing is just more lip service.

    And if it is just lip service then players should NOT give one flying f*** about it.

    • mtr75 - Jan 18, 2013 at 4:07 PM

      The WBC is lame. I don’t need to watch the U.S. beat Italy 16-3 in March. I really don’t. It’s just not practical, nor is it compelling in any way. Tell me one thing that’s interesting about it, just one.

      • djpostl - Jan 18, 2013 at 6:13 PM

        Gettin to see some of the Cuban players defect and that is about it.

  11. moogro - Jan 18, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    It would be kinda cool if there was a world league competition setup that everyone could get behind.

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