EDITOR'S NOTE: Every once in a while, I go off into other sports. This is one of those times. If you're not interested in MLB and or the World Baseball Classic, you can skip this one.
I have, since it began in 2006, been one of the biggest fans of the World Baseball Classic. I think it's a great event, a celebration of baseball's international appeal and one of the few unequivocally good things about the tenure of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.
By my fandom took a serious blow this year.
Not because Team USA was knocked out in the semifinals. That is, after all, one step further than the team got last time, when a loss to Mexico and the then-bewildering rules of pool play ended USA's tournament in the second round.
And not because of the usual complaints from the critics, who whine about the event taking away from players' focus on their teams, gripe about the potential for injury, hunt for reasons to oppose the classic instead of reveling in the all too easy reasons to celebrate it.
No, I will have to spend more time trying to decide how much to invest in the World Baseball Classic in 2013 because the managing in this year's tournament was so poor -- and, it seems, poor for no other reason than the fact that winning was not Davey Johnson's first priority.
It is hard to believe that Johnson is a bad manager. He won a World Series and had several other good seasons. A few bad seasons, too, but everyone has a couple or three of those.
No, Johnson's first priority was not to win. How can you say it was, when he himself said he would forfeit a game before asking a non-catcher to go behind the plate. To an extent, that decision would be understandable -- the catching position does carry unique risks of injury, particularly for those who are not used to playing it. But it bothered me that Johnson answered the speculative question with a defeatist answer, instead of declining to reveal what he would do. This hinted that he wanted the answer broadcast, wanted teams to know that he would not place their prized player at risk. Even more telling was how he said it
"I **** sure wouldn't want to be lynched or hung up in some city if I put (Kevin) Youkilis behind the dish or something," Johnson said of Boston's first baseman.
In other words, Johnson was managing scared. And it was clear that his first priority was to protect the interests of Major League teams -- most of whom are not crazy about the classic to begin with -- instead of trying to win the tournament.
That set the stage for Sunday night's debacle, a 9-4 loss to Japan in which it became clear that Johnson had either lost his mind or decided that he was the manager of the Grapefruit All-Star Team -- not Team USA in the preeminent international baseball tournament, now that baseball is no longer being an Olympic sport.
Johnson's first mistake was staying with Roy Oswalt too long. The right-hander was clearly laboring against the left-handed lineup early in the fourth inning, but Johnson didn't pull Oswalt until a 2-1 USA lead had turned into a 6-2 deficit. After the fifth run of the inning, left-hander John Grabow came in and immediately got the third out to end the carnage.
Things got truly strange in the eighth. Mark DeRosa doubled in two runs to bring USA back within striking distance, then moved to third on an error. Japan had right-hander Takahiro Mahara on the mound. For reasons passing understanding, Johnson wanted to replace left-hander Curtis Granderson. While DeRosa batted, switch-hitter Shane Victorino was on-deck. Suddenly, after DeRosa ended up on third, Johnson went with right-hander Evan Longoria.
This was puzzling for several reasons. Japan was not warming up a left-handed reliever, and I'm not sure they even had one to warm up. Making Longoria's job even harder was the wind blowing in from left field, which had already knocked down two potential home runs by DeRosa earlier in the game.
So Johnson passed by two hitters with a significantly better chance to tie the game, or at least knock in a critical run (Victorino by no means being a power hitter), to place a young if talented player in an impossible situation. Longoria, for the record, took away any chance to redeem Johnson's decision by striking out. One ground ball later, Japan escaped the inning.
But the two runs put the Americans back in the ball game. Now, if they could only get out of the bottom of the eighth without further damage, they had a puncher's chance.
Oh, that's right -- their manager was Davey Johnson.
Johnson decided not to go with Scot Shields, setup man extraordinaire for the Los Angeles Angels, but instead with Joel Hanrahan, a good reliever but probably not the best of the two options. By the time Shields came in, it was 7-4 with a man on and two outs. The first man he saw? Ichiro Suzuki. Two hits later, it was 9-4 Japan, and the game was out of reach.
The ESPN broadcasting crew -- John Miller, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips -- tried to explain Johnson's inexplicable decisions, but the conclusions all came down to the same thing: His first priority was not winning; it was covering, making sure no manager, general manager or owner might get upset with his decisions. Oswalt was in because the Astros ace hadn't gotten as much work as he normally would have in the spring. Longoria was in because Johnson wanted to make sure the Rays third baseman, flown in for the semifinal and a potential final after a series of injuries to the Americans, got an at-bat in the classic. Hanrahan was in -- well, who knows why Hanrahan was in, though the crew suggested that this, too, was an effort to get everyone involved.
Oswalt's conditioning, though, should not have been Johnson's primary concern. (And had it been Ted Lilly, a pitcher for the Cubs -- my favorite team -- and a player who also hasn't had as much time on the mound as he probably should have, I would say the same thing.) And while getting Longoria (a member of my second-favorite team, the Rays) and Hanrahan into the game was a nice gesture, Johnson is supposed to be Team USA's manager, not their Boy Scout leader. Hurt feelings were also not supposed to be his concern.
To ask fans in the USA to get interested in the World Baseball Classic, and then to manage like there are more important things than winning, is a betrayal. It is a kick in the teeth to those who watched the games, who fervently cheered for USA, who in some cases shelled out money for tickets or for the MLB.tv package, so they could watch more of the games.
It is also unfair to the players, many of whom truly did give great effort. Adam Dunn, a player whose passion for the game has been questioned by an impolite general manager, slid hard into second base in the first round to break up a double play. David Wright soldiered on in another game despite fouling a ball hard off his foot -- a decision that wasn't received well by Mets manager Jerry Manuel, though Wright seemed to care less about his own skipper's feelings than Johnson cared about upsetting other managers.
And Manuel's concerns raise another question: Is it worse to ask the players to take part in a "meaningless" tournament and risk injury if you're dedicated to an all-out effort to be the champions, or to ask them to participate and take a chance that they might miss part of the regular season if you're too afraid to manage to win?
But to get back to the fans, who are, after all, the reason baseball is played at all. Why ask them to watch if winning will not be your priority? Why should they get involved, get excited, if the decisions are going to be made in an effort to keep managers and general managers happy and not in an attempt to serve the best interests of Team USA?
Why even play in the tournament at all?
Will my emotions change in time for the 2013 World Baseball Classic? I don't know. But right now, I feel -- to go back to that word -- betrayed. I feel as though the support I gave this team, while earned by the players, was not earned by management.
Before I get involved in the World Baseball Classic next time, I need to hear one thing and one thing only from Team USA's manager and executives: Our priority is to win. That is our goal. In pursuit of that goal, we will do anything we can to minimize the chance of injury or the disruption of a player's training routine, but only if doing so does not place in serious jeopardy Team USA's chances of victory.
Otherwise, let the players stay in Spring Training and watch the rest of the world play.
Save us all some time.