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Column: WBC will never be the World Cup of baseball if paperwork bars stars from playing

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during a spring-training workout at Camelback Ranch.
Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during a spring-training workout at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix on Thursday. Kershaw will not be able to play in the World Baseball Classic next month because of an insurance issue.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
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Does the World Baseball Classic want to remain a glorified exhibition or does it want to be baseball’s equivalent of a World Cup?

The question is worth exploring in the aftermath of Clayton Kershaw announcing on Friday that he was withdrawing from the tournament.

Kershaw said he was 100% healthy.

He said he wanted to pitch.

He said the Dodgers supported him.

Kershaw wouldn’t elaborate on why he couldn’t play for Team USA, but people familiar with the situation said he failed to secure an insurance policy to protect the Dodgers in case of injury.

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Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw announced Friday he won’t take part in the World Baseball Classic after three months of preparation.

Feb. 17, 2023

So much for the best taking on the best on a global stage.

So much for amplifying baseball’s popularity.

Kershaw will make $20 million this season and that couldn’t be risked in a tournament that doesn’t matter. But wasn’t the entire point of recruiting player of Kershaw’s stature to transform the event into something meaningful?

“I’m frustrated,” Kershaw said. “They should make it easy for guys that want to play to play.”

He’s right.

Paperwork never kept Lionel Messi out of a World Cup or Usain Bolt from running in an Olympics.

Major League Baseball runs the WBC and wants the tournament to succeed. But the primary interest of the league is to protect its most lucrative asset, which is the MLB season.

Conflicts between club and country happen in soccer, too. The difference is that for major international tournaments, clubs are obligated by FIFA to release players to their respective national teams. Messi was 35 when he played in the World Cup last year. Even if Paris Saint-Germain and France’s Ligue 1 had wanted to keep him from playing in the tournament, they were powerless to stop him. The structure ensures the best players will be showcased at the World Cup, which is why it is the World Cup.

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Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw flips the ball between throws.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw flips the ball between throws during the first day of spring-training workouts Thursday.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The WBC is incredibly popular in countries such as Japan, South Korea and the Dominican Republic, and the island of Puerto Rico. That passion hasn’t caught on in the United States, where audiences are reluctant to watch anything less than top-level competition. The WBC doesn’t represent that.

A concerted effort was made to attract more high-profile American players, which resulted in commitments from stars such as Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Kershaw.

“I was really looking forward to it,” Kershaw said.

The only time Kershaw had represented his country was as a high school senior when he pitched for the under-18 national team at the 2005 Pan Am Championships. His teammates then included other future major leaguers such as Brett Anderson, Tyson Ross, Dellin Betances and Shawn Tolleson.

Mike Trout said during a press conference that he’ll do whatever he can to keep Shohei Ohtani with the Angels, but understands Ohtani will do what’s best.

Feb. 15, 2023

“We were all in high school so we didn’t really know the meaning necessarily but I think any time you represent your country there’s like a little added impact,” Kershaw said.

The numerous injuries Kershaw endured since then made the WBC’s primary insurer hesitant to issue a policy covering him. Texas Rangers right-hander Nathan Eovaldi was also forced to withdraw from the tournament because of similar issues.

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Kershaw looked into purchasing his own insurance, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to speak publicly.

“I tried to work it out on my own, tried to work it out with MLB, the union, the team, everybody,” Kershaw said. “Everybody worked hard to try and make it work. Just wasn’t able to.”

Follow along for the latest news and analysis from Dodgers spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix ahead of the 2023 MLB season.

Feb. 17, 2023

Kershaw described the outcome as “super disappointing.”

“I really wanted to do it, I really wanted to be part of the group,” he said. “Probably my last chance to get to do it.”

Also, a blown chance to elevate a tournament striving for legitimacy.

When Kershaw made his announcement on Friday, there had to be a segment of Dodgers fans who sighed in relief. After all, Kershaw will turn 35 next month and his injury history is his injury history.

That anyone would think that speaks to how the tournament is viewed. As MLB looks ahead, it has to ask itself whether it is satisfied with the WBC being what it is or wants it to be something more.

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