"I would hope you would support who we are not who we are not. These six individuals have made the choice to work, the choice to sacrifice, to put themselves on the line 23 times in the next four months, to represent you and this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team."
-- Norman Dale
You could almost hear the booming voice of Gene Hackman's character in Hoosiers admonishing disinterested sports fans as the rosters for the 2009 World Baseball Classic were announced on Tuesday evening (check out all the rosters here). The numbers may be different (25 players instead of 23, up to 10 games instead of six, and three weeks instead of four months) but the outcry from fans demanding players who are not in uniform is likely to be just the same. Instead of chanting for Jimmy Chitwood and his silky smooth jump shot, they are wondering where have you gone Joe Mauer and Tim Lincecum? Still, it is not the absence of those players, but the reasons given for their absence, that is the most difficult to believe.
After an embarrassing flameout on the sport's biggest international stage, a prominent USA team is following a less-is-more philosophy toward roster-building in hopes of reclaiming its once-unquestioned status as the dominant nation in the world.
But while their basketball counterparts were able to appeal successfully to a player's sense of patriotism for a (marketing) event of unparalleled global significance without asking them to sacrifice the day jobs for which they are paid handsomely, baseball's WBC organizers could not, and thus were already starting from a disadvantaged position. After all, the WBC may be intriguing, but it is a pale imitation of the Olympic Games (to say nothing of the regular season) and neither its inaugural event in 2006 nor its sequel this spring could convince enough superstar players to sacrifice their time -- and possibly their bodies -- in the name of a second-tier competition, even if it is for the Red, White and Blue.
So it's understandable to a large degree that there are probably more big names that will not wear the Stars and Stripes than will during the WBC (especially among pitchers, with teams unwilling to risk lending their high-priced and vital talent at such a delicate time in their body clock's resetting). Among those who will not be playing for the Americans are such all-world talents as Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Derrek Lee, Lance Berkman, Chase Utley (sidelined by a hip injury), Evan Longoria, Mark Teixeira and, of course, Alex Rodriguez, who traded in his Team USA jersey from '06 for one from the Dominican Republic for 2009.
Much has been made of U.S. manager Davey Johnson's desire to field a team focused primarily on winning ballgames, rather than getting playing time. It's a strategy that '06 manager Buck Martinez admittedly employed to disastrous effect, as the U.S. got bounced before the medal round.
But that makes all the talk about choosing a team of role players rather than a collection of stars more a good bit of spin than a good bit of strategy. It makes it seem that all those players who are not on the team were available and interested but were turned away, when that clearly isn't the case. Surely, Team USA would have loved to add some of those names on the missing persons list to its roster, even if it meant increasing the likelihood that a star would sit, and even if it meant sacrificing players like Brad Hawpe, Mark DeRosa or Chris Iannetta, who, though talented, are clearly meant to be secondary figures on this club.
Additionally, there's nothing wrong with wanting to field a team with stars at every position. Baseball is not basketball. Players can't demand the ball every 30 seconds and forcing them into subservient roles they are not accustomed to is not only virtually impossible, it's unlikely players would mind much, given they were already sacrificing time with their own teams in the first place. David Wright's spot in the batting order will still only come up once every nine times whether he -- and his team -- want him in the box or not. Grady Sizemore can't catch every flyball (as much as Johnson might want him to, with the stone-gloved Ryan Braun in leftfield). With that in mind, the problem isn't having too many stars on the roster, it's utilizing them the proper way that can make or break the U.S. team's chances.
(In case you're wondering, it wasn't until Jimmy Chitwood joined the Huskers that they really got rolling, and things worked out pretty well in the end for them.)