The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

March 10, 2013

Thoma: The World Baseball Classic and the glory that is Drew Butera

— The World Baseball Classic is in full swing. As in swinging bats and swinging fists.

Welcome to international competition, baseball style — a bizarre melange of nationalism, short starts and the glory that is Drew Butera.

Butera may not make the Minnesota Twins roster this spring, but the light-hitting backup catcher has four RBIs — and a .750 slugging percentage — for Team Italy.

The World Baseball Classic is MLB’s effort to “grow” the game outside its established strongholds.

What it isn’t — what it can never be as long as it’s shoehorned alongside the 162-game major league schedule — is a legitimate test of baseball prowess.

I’m not sure how much baseball in Italy is grown by a national lineup stuffed with second- and third-generation Americans wearing the uniform of grandpa’s birth land. But some of the the Azzurri are Italian by any definition, and they sure played well in emerging from the first round.

Team USA has a bunch of legitimate stars in its lineup, Joe Mauer amongst them. But the pitching staff, with apologies to the 2012 NL Cy Young winner (R.A. Dickey) is anything but the best the United States has to offer.

And even if Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw were chucking for the Americans, the timing and rules work against their effectiveness. They aren’t ready to ramp up to full capacity in early March, and they don’t want to be ready.

This is the third time around for the WBC. Team USA has never as much as reached the finals, and it may not this time around either. Given the intent of the event — to spread baseball beyond its stronghold in North America, the Caribbean and parts of the Pacific Rim — that’s just as well.

Still, it’s baseball played with a higher level of passion than your run-of-the-mill Grapefruit League game — as demonstrated, perhaps, by Saturday’s brawl between Canada and Mexico, a more violent outburst than most baseball scuffles. (Team Canada coach Larry Walker on Alfredo Aceves, a pitcher for the Red Sox and Mexico: “I saw Satan in his eyes.”)

The World Baseball Classic is an afterthought to most American stars, and certainly to most American fans.

That’s OK. It’s not meant for us anyway. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.

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