WBC punctures myth of American superiority in baseball

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Bob Klapisch
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
— So you’re bummed at the way Team USA shriveled Sunday night against Japan, a 9-4 loss that punctured once and for all the myth of American superiority in baseball. The game has caught up with us on a global level, that much is obvious. If the U.S. ever is going to win the WBC, it needs more intelligent roster selection, better players on the field in elimination games and, certainly, better managing.

Was Davey Johnson’s neuro-processor always this slow? He made so many bad (and soft) decisions it’s hard to believe this is the same manager who had the guts to double-switch Darryl Strawberry out of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

It’s bad enough, too, that Johnson allowed Roy Oswalt to get smoked during a five-run fourth inning. But how about pinch-hitting Evan Longoria for Curtis Granderson in the eighth inning with a runner on third, the U.S. down by two runs and no left-handers remaining in Japan’s bullpen?

Maybe Davey wanted to reward Longoria for flying cross-country on one day’s notice to replace the injured Kevin Youkilis. But the Asian teams are so fundamentally sound and so highly motivated, it’ll take more than paybacks and favor-building to compete with them in 2013.

That’s especially true in the case of Derek Jeter, who had no business being on the field in elimination games against Japan and Puerto Rico. Jeter’s throwing error in the bottom of the eighth was a key part of Japan’s decisive three-run rally, turning the Americans to vapor.

Jimmy Rollins is a far better defender, and there was no rational excuse for using Jeter ahead of him. It’s true, the Yankee shortstop deserves credit for championing the cause of the WBC—he practically was the first to sign up—but that loyalty was a searing indictment of Johnson’s judgment.

There are plenty of Americans (too many, sadly) who’ll blow off the WBC and just move on. Yankee fans are a subset of that group, ready to embrace Jeter and forget about the last two weeks. Johnson’s flubs quickly will fade, but Jeter’s deficiencies are about to become Joe Girardi’s season-long problem. How soon before the captain’s inability to get to balls to his left officially sabotage ground-ball pitchers such as Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte.

The army of Jeter loyalists rally around the same defense: He’s been an enormously important part of the Yankee dynasty since 1996. He’s clutch, he’s reliable, he’s emotionally stable (more than Alex Rodriguez ever could say) and he’s fully invested in this franchise.

But remember this: Jeter is 35, and only one team in history has won a championship with a shortstop that old—the 1909 Pirates, with Honus Wagner, who also was 35. Jeter will be 37 at the end of his contract, which is to say, good luck to the front office as it wrestles with the next negotiation.

In the meantime, maybe it’s time for the WBC to consider a different format or at least a different time of the season. Johan Santana’s proposal to play the tournament two weeks after the World Series has merit—everyone still would be in shape and the threat of injury would be mitigated by the long winter ahead.

As it is, there simply were too many American players struggling at less than 100 percent— and that’s just the ones who survived to the semifinals. Think of the causalities along the way. Think of the players who—wisely or not, selfishly or not (you choose)—stayed in spring training.

Maybe Davey should’ve done likewise. Those ’80s memories were sweet, but his synapses no longer fire quickly enough for a tournament of this caliber.

Last updated: 9:49 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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