Paul Sullivan: Can the World Baseball Classic compete with the NCAA Tournament? March Madness is tough to beat.
March Madness or the World Baseball Classic?
That was a question sports fans and bar owners were forced to answer Saturday as the second round of the NCAA Tournament clashed with Team USA’s WBC quarterfinal game against undefeated Venezuela.
Would fans have more interest in their NCAA brackets or watching their favorite baseball players?
Obviously fans and establishments with multiples TVs didn’t have to choose, and some could watch both events if they weren’t worried about straining their necks from turning their heads.
But for those with only one available screen or a limited attention span, picking between college basketball’s playoffs and the Olympic-style baseball tournament was a tough call.
Northwestern versus UCLA? Or Lance Lynn against Miguel Cabrera?
The NCAA Tournament, of course, had a built-in audience fueled by interest in the sport and the great American pastime — sports betting.
You didn’t have to know a thing about Fairleigh Dickinson — the shortest team in the tournament — to appreciate its shocking victory Friday night over top-seeded Purdue and Zach Edey, its 7-foot-4-inch star. And when an Ivy League school such as Princeton can end the season of a national power such as Arizona, it only emphasizes the mad in “madness.”
There’s nothing like the NCAA Tournament. In the first NCAA regional I covered in 1992 in Milwaukee, Georgia Tech beat USC 79-78 when 6-8 James Forrest took an inbounds pass with .08 left and hit a turnaround 3-pointer to win it.
Forrest had taken only three 3s all season — and had not hit a single one until that day.
“They say the greatest things in life are the unexpected,” Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said afterward. “Truer words were never said.”
That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament so special. The unexpected happens often enough to make you want to come back for more.
In the first two days, Furman, Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson and Florida Atlantic took turns being the proverbial Cinderella, and it couldn’t have been a better advertisement for the sport. Northwestern rallied Saturday but couldn’t knock off No. 2 seed UCLA, falling 68-63 in Sacramento, Calif.
During the Illinois-Arkansas first-round game Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, one of the loudest cheers came when the scoreboard provided a live look-in of Princeton’s upset of Arizona. The game on the court was almost an afterthought for a minute.
That might have been the tournament’s signature moment until Fairleigh Dickenson, a 23½-point underdog against the Boilermakers, became the second No. 16 seed in history to beat a No. 1.
“If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times,” FDU coach Tobin Anderson said afterward.
Fortunately they don’t have to play Purdue 99 more times to find out. Their place in history is secure, and now the Knights are playing with house money when they meet Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
Major League Baseball hoped to create that kind of excitement in 2006 with the introduction of the WBC and has gone to great lengths to promote its fifth edition of the international tournament, which was scheduled for 2021 but postponed two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The addition of Mike Trout, the best player of his generation, helped Team USA draw better players than in past years, while Shohei Ohtani’s emergence as the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth made Japan a bigger drawing card.
To the rest of the world, Team USA is the Duke of the WBC field, a team with so much talent and cockiness you can’t help but dislike them. MLB Network studio host Mark DeRosa, the U.S. manager, has never coached or managed a major-league game, leaving the impression it’s a push-button operation.
Some have even referred to the U.S. as the “Dream Team,” a cliche that doesn’t do justice to the original Barcelona Olympics Dream Team starring Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and other NBA superstars. Trout, arguably MLB’s greatest player, has no rings and only one playoff appearances. It’s a poor analogy, to say the least.
When Mexico beat the so-called Dream Team 11-5 last week, there was literal dancing in the streets outside Chase Field in Phoenix. Mexico, which knocked off Puerto Rico on Friday to advance to the semifinals, is the Fairleigh Dickinson of the WBC, a team you can’t help but root for.
Mexico manager Benji Gil said his team was at a disadvantage playing on Friday due to TV schedule favoring the U.S. According to ESPN, the U.S. team also was also scheduled to play Saturday’s quarterfinal game with a day of rest because of a stipulation in MLB’s deal with Fox Sports, which aired the game.
Led by Tampa Bay Rays star Randy Arozarena, a Cuban who applied for citizenship in Mexico last year just to play for its WBC team, Mexico faces Japan on Monday in the semifinals in Miami. Sunday night’s semifinal pits Cuba against the United States, which defeated Venezuela 9-7 on Saturday.
The biggest difference between the WBC and March Madness is that the NCAA Tournament features real games with do-or-die implications. The WBC basically is a series of exhibition games with rules limiting pitchers’ usage to avoid injuries before the start of the MLB regular season. That’s impossible, naturally, and New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz suffered a season-ending knee injury while celebrating a win over the Dominican Republic with his teammates from Puerto Rico.
Some Mets fans called for the end to the WBC, which might have cost them a trip to the World Series when all is said and done. That’s not happening, though you have to wonder if owners will strong-arm their stars to sit out the next WBC.
Debate aside, representing your country is a big deal for players. White Sox reliever Kendall Graveman teared up last month while talking about being invited to play for the U.S. team, and some Latin American players have claimed it’s bigger to them than the World Series.
But if the WBC were as important as winning a World Series, Aaron Judge, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and the rest of the elite players would all be clamoring to play instead of getting ready this month in spring training.
“My focus is on New York, and especially being named captain. I didn’t want to miss any time at spring training,” Judge told Fox Sports. “There’s so many young guys here that I’ve only seen on Twitter or the prospect reports. I want to get a chance to be around these young guys and get to know them and show them what we do here.”
No college player would dream of missing out on a chance to play in March Madness.
At least fans of both events can enjoy Monday’s WBC semifinals and Tuesday’s WBC championship game without having the remote at the ready.
MLB knew better than to try to go up against the Sweet 16.