Ryan Vogelsong threw three exhibition innings for the Giants in the desert Monday, then left the club to pitch for the United States in the World Baseball Classic over the next few weeks.
My question is: To what purpose?
We all know the supposed answer. The World Baseball Classic, featuring 16 national teams from around the planet, is a three-week tournament. The champion will be determined March 19 in the title game at AT&T Park.
But champion of what?
You can't say the champion of all baseball on earth. Not when the best players aren't on the field. They won't be. That is said with all due respect to Vogelsong and Jeremy Affeldt, the two Giants on the USA roster. But when Matt Cain and Buster Posey are not joining them, the WBC result can hardly be considered definitive in terms of deciding which country plays baseball best.
Vogelsong and Affeldt should get pats on the back for participating. I speak here as a closet jingoist who believes in America's fundamental concepts going back to 1776. My friends, for example, know enough not to bring up the topic of British royalty in my presence. They know a rant will ensue. I blatantly admire anyone who wants to wear a USA uniform proudly. Vogelsong does.
"It's called our national pastime," Vogelsong said after Monday's exhibition outing. "It's our obligation to go out and show people that this is our game."
Hear, hear. But where, where are the players who can best show it?
Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers is sitting out the WBC. So are Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. There is no requirement that -- unlike with the All-Star game -- they must participate if they are asked and if they are healthy. Thus, many American players decline.
It is a bit different for international players, most of whom answer their country's call. The Giants' Pablo Sandoval and Marco Scutaro will be wearing Venezuela uniforms this month. Angel Pagan will join Puerto Rico.
Little wonder, then, that the United States has finished no better than fourth place in the two previous WBC tournaments. Japan won both, in 2006 and 2009. The event draws great TV ratings there.
The WBC came about for well-intentioned and worthy reasons. In 2005 when the International Olympic Committee stupidly banished baseball and softball from the Games after 2008, keepers of the sport wanted to retain a worldwide tournament. Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball commissioner, was smart enough to see the marketing possibilities and gave it a thumbs-up.
However, certain MLB owners were not as enthused. They didn't want their employees to risk injury -- or in the case of younger international players, forsake their development and instruction in spring training. To gain management and union approval for the WBC, therefore, Selig had to promise that no players would be forced to participate.
Many of them don't -- or are blocked by their teams from doing so. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto was asked to pitch for his native Dominican Republic. Cueto said he was healthy and wanted to play. But the Reds forbid it, saying they were concerned by the oblique injury Cueto suffered in October's postseason.
There are also more subtle forms of discouragement. As Buster Olney of ESPN reported over the weekend, one unidentified major league player asked his manager for advice about accepting a WBC invitation. The manager said he was not permitted to tell the player what he should do. But then the manager slyly asked: "Who pays your bills?" The player rejected his invitation.
This state of affairs leaves WBC promoters in a pickle. How do you build up enthusiasm for a "championship" that your sport's best customers know has such a fat asterisk attached? It doesn't help that the WBC logo looks more like a trademark for a psychedelic lawn mower.
I can testify that attending a WBC game is a unique experience, a dialed-down version of watching World Cup soccer. I bought two $80 tickets for a Venezuela-South Korea semifinal game in 2009 at Dodger Stadium and took my son. We sat near some South Korean fans who were having the time of their lives, chanting and singing and waving flags. Venezuela's fans weren't as loud, but they showed off some pretty decent dance moves, at least until their team fell too far behind en route to defeat.
Afterward, my son and I agreed that it was a lot of fun and the baseball was intense. But we weren't sure it was worth the $160. Bay Area fans must also be pondering that issue. Tickets to the WBC games in San Francisco range from $68 (bleachers in the semifinals) to $270 (premium field club in the final). Odds of an advance sellout are minimal because there is no guarantee that the U.S. team will be in the championship game -- to be played at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, no less. In fact, a Monday check of StubHub's website revealed that more than 4,500 tickets were available on the secondary market for each AT&T game, some at half face value.
It's not that the WBC deserves hatred and scorn. But what emotion does it deserve? The games are enjoyable to watch on television, a nice changeup from the lazy spring training games that can end in a tie. But if the WBC is not the ultimate global baseball event, what is it? And why should we care very much?