Monday March 23rd, 2009

Five thoughts in the wake of Team USA's 9-4 loss to Japan in the World Baseball Classic semifinals.

1. Japan taught the United States a lesson Sunday with its 9-4 semifinal victory. Is anybody in America listening? Three of the four finalists in the two World Baseball Classics have been teams from Asia, including the all-Asian final Monday between Japan and Korea. The recipe is similar in the Asian baseball way: attention to detail, precise work habits, lefthanded contact hitting and near-flawless defense. "They want to play the game of baseball as perfect as they can," USA outfielder Shane Victorino said.

Victorino noticed how even during pitching changes in the middle of an inning, the Asian teams will take infield practice. "We stand around and talk to each other," Victorino said.

Look at pregame practices. The Japanese run the baseball equivalent of a precise three-ring circus, with players taking groundballs and flyballs all over the yard at game speed. The Americans take a half-speed approach, and you'll almost never catch them taking pregame infield and outfield practice as a team.

Yes, baseball is the American pastime, but the United States once invented and popularized the automobile, too. Look at Detroit today and tell me it's still doing the car business better than Asia. Reputation alone is not a winning business model.

It's not that the American players cared less. That's the sloppy way of trying to explain away how this team of $160 million worth of ballplayers didn't make it to the final. They cared as much as Japan.

The problem is the lack of urgency and the attention to detail, especially in a short-form tournament when no game, no inning, can afford to be given away. And that's the true lesson to be learned from the Americans' semifinal knockout. How the team is picked, how the team practices (the USA gets together too late and even the American players grumbled about the lack of work) and how the games are managed need some serious work. The players care. The system and the management failed them.

2. Where to begin? How about exactly where the USA checked out of the tournament: The fourth inning when manager Davey Johnson inexcusably allowed a 2-1 lead to turn into a 6-2 unconquerable deficit. Just as he let Jake Peavy let a game get away in Round 2 to "get his work in," Johnson let ineffective starting pitcher Roy Oswalt let the tournament slip away.

"I still thought he was throwing good enough to stay in the ballgame," Johnson said.

Huh? The inning began like this: single, single, error on a smash that should have been a single, sacrifice fly. Now Japan led, 3-2, with a runner on first, one out and three straight lefthanded hitters due up. Johnson had a 13-man pitching staff with three lefthanders in his bullpen. And not only did he not bring a lefty in the game, he had no one even warming up.

Aki Iwamura promptly tripled off Oswalt for another run. Munenori Kawasaki singled for another run. Ichiro Suzuki did ground out, but Hiroyuki Nakajima doubled for another run. Now it was 6-2. The game was lost without Johnson ever getting a lefthander in the game, against the part of the lineup stacked with left-handers. When he did get left-handers in -- John Grabow, J.P. Howell and Matt Thornton -- they threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings.

"I tried to get Grabow up," Johnson said, adding that Grabow had some tightness in his groin that caused him to need more time. "It was my fault," Johnson said. "It took him longer in the cool weather to get loose."

The greatest strength of the USA team was supposed to be the depth of the bullpen, which could match up lefties and righties against hitters better than any other team in the tournament. And yet, the USA essentially went home without going to its strength.

The lesson is the United States needs a manager and a general manager -- GM Bob Watson and executive director Paul Seiler must take as much responsibility as the man they hired -- who will run games with urgency, who will pay attention to details, who will manage to win games and not manage egos. They need someone like Larry Bowa, Buck Showalter or Brad Mills.

3. The fourth inning debacle wasn't the only place where the USA management team let down the players. Consider:

• Johnson let left-handed hitters Adam Dunn and Curtis Granderson bat against lefthanders with runners on base in the fifth and sixth innings. Both made outs to end the innings. Johnson could have used Evan Longoria against the lefties, but he didn't in part because he only had three players on the bench and didn't want to go into that shallow pool so early in the game. And why did he have only three reserves? Seiler and Watson thought it wasn't necessary to replace all of their injured players to have a full roster. They basically decided they had no use for Grady Sizemore, who could have made the short flight over from Arizona. Great.

• Johnson did pinch hit for Granderson in the eighth with one out and the score 6-4. But he managed to mess that situation up, too. It was then that he sent up Longoria to hit -- against a right-hander. Wait. It gets worse. Johnson had Victorino ready to hit, but suddenly changed his mind at the last minute.

"I didn't know exactly when I was going to hit," Longoria said. "Then he said, 'You're going up right now!'"

With no warning, without having taken an at-bat in the tournament ("My heart was racing," Longoria said), and having to face a righthander after two openings passed against a lefthander, Longoria struck out.

Incredibly, Johnson said he was looking for a home run -- the wind was howling from left to right; no ball that wasn't launched from a cannon was going out to left field -- and -- if you can follow this -- that Victorino would have batted with two runners on but that Longoria was his man with one man on.

• To keep the game at 6-4, Johnson did not give the eighth inning to J.J. Putz (suffering from a headache), Jonathon Broxton, Scot Shields or Brad Ziegler. He gave it to Joel Hanrahan. So much for the mighty USA bullpen. Hanrahan walked the first batter he faced, and Japan cashed in with a three-run inning.

4. So much for the feel-good, cooperative effort of the players and owners that the World Baseball Classic was supposed to represent. A grievance filed by the union on the eve of the semifinals regarding charitable contributions has intensified erosions in the partnership, as the winds of a 2012 labor war begin to blow.

On the heels of finger-pointing from the steroid era (including the possible tipping of players by the union) and the union considering a collusion grievance over the tepid free agent market, the owners and players can't even agree on what the players want out of this grievance. The union seeks not only to ban charitable donations from player contracts, but also seeks "relief" to "make ... whole" the 109 or so players who already have existing such clauses in their contracts.

Specifically, the union wrote in its grievance, "Accordingly, the Panel should declare the Clubs' conduct unlawful, should award such relief as is necessary to make each affected Player whole, and should award such other relief as is appropriate."

Major league officials interpreted such "make-whole relief" as monetary -- that is, the repayment by clubs to players for monies already donated. A union official, however, said the "relief" may or may not include repayment, that the larger purpose was to plant "a stake in the ground" when it comes to opposing the growing practice of writing charitable provisions into contracts.

The grievance lists 22 teams the union considers in violation of the Basic Agreement, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team the union claims is also in violation by using payroll deductions to fulfill the charitable donations. The Basic Agreement allows special covenants only if they provide the player's contract with added value. The union's position is that the charitable provisions are unenforceable and have no value. The club's position is that such donations are two-party agreements that provide clear value to the player in terms of goodwill with the community, as well as tax advantages.

The growing practice of writing charitable contributions into contracts reached a new level -- one that prompted the union into action -- when Dodgers owner Frank McCourt announced he would include such a provision into all contracts, beginning with the one free agent Manny Ramirez signed. McCourt called it "The Manny Ramirez Provision."

In more cooperative times, the union might have negotiated with MLB officials on trying to downgrade such clauses to voluntary, separate side agreements. Instead, the union took the aggressive position of filing the grievance during the championship round of the WBC. "Why are you picking the finals round of the WBC to drop the bomb?" MLB lead labor lawyer Rob Manfred asked.

What's at stake here? According to MLB figures, the total money donated by players through contractual provisions is $5.8 million -- that out of the $3.7 billion paid to players overall, or only 15 hundreths of one percent. Obviously, the stakes are much greater than that as 2012 looms.

5. So what do the players with charitable provisions think of the grievance? It's news to them. Team USA players David Wright, Ryan Braun and Ted Lilly -- all of whom signed contracts agreeing to contribute to club-run charities -- said Sunday they were unfamiliar with the grievance, with Braun and Lilly insisting they regarded their own charitable clauses as provisions they strongly endorse.

"I came to an agreement with the Cubs," Lilly said, referring to his major league team. "I wouldn't want to go back on it."

Braun only learned about the grievance from reporters prior to the WBC semifinal game Sunday. Speaking about donating money back to the community through his club, the Brewers third baseman said, "I think it sets a real good example. I don't have a problem with it."

When asked about the possible repayment of money to him as part of "make-whole relief", Braun said, "This [grievance] does not sound like a real good PR move on behalf of the players, but this is the first I've heard of it. I'll have to find out what's going on."

Wright, the Mets third baseman, said he received an e-mail regarding the grievance but had not yet read it. "I'm not educated enough about it to be able to comment on it," Wright said.

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