March 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Tony Paul

World Baseball Classic, a hit abroad, strikes out in U.S.

The WBC was a big deal to Miguel Cabrera, not so much for some of his Tigers teammates. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

Lakeland, Fla. — On Thursday night in Lake Buena Vista, on the Disney World grounds, and just moments after that evening's game against the Atlanta Braves had ended, several Tigers players rushed into the clubhouse to gather around the TV and watch the World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

It just so happened that their teammates, pitcher Octavio Dotel (Dominican) and Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), were squaring off against each other.

Almost all the Tigers' players still in the room — in other words, those who hadn't played the first few innings and departed separate of the team bus — were fixated, and there were some words aimed at the TV.

The end result was rather anticlimactic. Cabrera walked. Still, many of the Tigers, Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski included, were into it. But, specifically, the international players and prospects were glued to the action.

Now, how do the United States players feel about it?

"To be honest," said Alex Avila, "the house I'm renting doesn't have MLB Network."

Said Rick Porcello: "I'm not paying too close attention to what the standings are."

Torri Hunter offered, "The WBC is cool," before starting to stay something else, but stopping himself and adding only, "I ain't gonna say that."

Leyland, back in December, didn't halt any thoughts: "I'm not in big favor of that, particularly, but I support it because the commissioner said you better support it."

This is the third installment of the WBC, which, with baseball ridiculously now excluded from the Olympics, is the sport's most far-reaching international showcase. It features some of the game's best players, and interest definitely is growing. But it still has significant flaws — especially when trying to appeal to American fans.

Major League Baseball is correct to reach out to the rest of the globe whenever possible; after all, Ichiro Suzuki and Cabrera and others didn't exactly grow up in the Bronx. And so MLB has repeatedly painted a pretty picture for this tournament, and this year even put one of the sport's most respected faces, Joe Torre, center stage to manage the U.S.

But while the roster has good players, we still are treated to Willie Bloomquist over Prince Fielder, Ross Detwiler over Justin Verlander, Glen Perkins over Clayton Kershaw.

Verlander, who like the Dodgers' Kershaw is eyeing a $200 million contract in the not-so-distant future, declined to take part, saying he wanted to get in shape for the season. Fielder, meanwhile, wanted no part of it.

Then the other day, Mike Trout, the Angels' marvelous talent, watched one of the games — from the stands, along with Vernon Wells.

So if the American players — not to mention their teams, who have a whole lot invested in these guys' health and production — aren't sold on this, why should we be?

Bad timing

The first, and most glaring, issue is the timing — for two weeks in March, when all the major league players are just finally dusting off the final cobwebs and starting to gear up for Opening Day.

Major league players aren't in shape for this.

It's why there are pitch counts for pitchers — and limits on how often they can pitch.

Anibal Sanchez, who just signed with the Tigers for $80 million this offseason, was denied the right to pitch Sunday for Venezuela, because he threw 20 pitches Thursday. At first glance, that seems like something straight out of the Little League rulebook, until you realize Sanchez isn't close to having his arm in shape.

So, he told me he had no problem with the Tigers' decision, and that it was the right call.

Hunter on Tuesday suggested to me the event might be better served if it was played in November or December, after the regular season — when players were still in shape. He then conceded the WBC, under that format, would have a hard time getting the star players to participate — when the other option is going home for some R&R.

My take: There's only one good time to have this, and that's to follow the NHL's path — when it stops its season for the Olympics. If MLB truly wants the WBC to be taken seriously, it has to stop the season at the All-Star break for two weeks, and let the tournament be played then.

Players would be in midseason form, so better players would be more inclined to play.

The problem? That'll absolutely never happen. MLB already schedules its World Series, should it go the full seven games, to end after Halloween — and the WBC would push it closer to Thanksgiving. That's unless owners sprinkled in some doubleheaders to tighten things up, as Leyland has suggested to commissioner Bud Selig, but that won't happen, because that costs owners revenue. And less money means no way, Jose.

So we're stuck with what we have — a March showcase, which is beloved by international fans, and tolerated by many Americans because, hey, at least it's baseball in March.

Of course, that's hardly much consolation to legions of fans who hibernate to spring camps for a week or two hoping to see their favorite players — then have to watch Matt Tuiasosopo played third base, instead of Cabrera, who's off playing elsewhere. That'sone repercussion MLB either ignored, or didn't even consider.

Injury risks

I'm not saying the American players despise the event. That's far from the truth. If the U.S. makes the championship game next week, there'll be interest. Hunter said there's plenty of passion there, even if he chooses not to play. Verlander genuinely seems like he wants to play someday, just if it didn't risk slowing his progression toward his day job, the regular season. Avila, oddly, was claimed to play for Team Spain, but won't participate until it's for the USA, since he's lived here all his life.

The Tigers actually told Avila he couldn't play, after dealing with knee injuries all last season. They said no, too, to Victor Martinez, after he missed all of 2012 (torn ACL).

And you can bet your last dollar the Tigers let out a long exhale when Cabrera, Sanchez and Omar Infante arrived back at camp early Tuesday morning no worse for wear. They'll count their blessings if Dotel returns unscathed, too.

But imagine if of them did get injured. Say, Cabrera, the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner, pulled a muscle running — or, worse, took a pitch to the head. Where would the Tigers, who've invested $150 million to get Mike Ilitch his long-coveted baseball title, be then?

"I was holding my breath!" said Hunter, who signed with the Tigers knowing this is his best chance not just to get to his first World Series, but to win his first ring. "I prayed for them every night."

What if any Detroit stars had been involved in the brawl — the fight between Canada and Mexico that, by the way, had the Tigers talking more than any final scores?

"Yeah," said Porcello, laughing, "that was interesting."

Tigers minor league infielder Cale Iorg plays for Canada, and was right in the middle of that — and even threw a bottle back into the stands. Good thing he's not a pitcher. That might've gone against his pitch count.

Now, don't misunderstand. This event isn't a farce. There's good talent here, and phenomenal competition — especially abroad, where super-passionate fans recognize that, and helped set the tournament's first-round attendance record. And don't think for a second other countries like Japan and Venezuela and so on don't already have fantastic baseball leagues that already hold their fans' attention, like in the U.S.

But this still is their most pride-filled event, even if it has pitch counts and (amazingly silly) mercy rules. Sanchez, Infante and Cabrera grin widely when talking about the opportunity to play under their country's flag. That's great.

Among baseball fans in the United States, though, Major League Baseball is king — and its crown already is called the World Series.

The rest of the world can have the World Baseball Classic.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/tonypaul1984