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World Baseball Classic still needs to find its footing in the U.S.

World Baseball Classic still needs to find its footing in the U.S.
Says Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw of the World Baseball Classic: "I feel like it is an honor even to get asked." (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

As Team USA worked out in Florida this week, Clayton Kershaw stood in front of his locker at the Dodgers' training camp in Arizona. The national team would go on without the best pitcher in the nation.

Kershaw has heard just about enough of the primary talking point surrounding the World Baseball Classic: How much of a classic could it be if Kershaw isn't playing? And how much of a classic could it be if Mike Trout and Kris Bryant — the most valuable players last season — aren't playing?

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"People saying it's not a big deal to us, well, I tend to disagree," Kershaw said. "I feel like it is an honor even to get asked."

Yet it will be Chris Archer, not Kershaw, starting for the Americans in their WBC opener Friday against Colombia. Archer, a good pitcher coming off a not-so-good year, lost 19 games last season. Kershaw lost four.

On Saturday, the U.S. faces the Dominican Republic, with a lineup that includes Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Jose Bautista. The U.S. had 626 players on opening-day rosters last season and the Dominican had 82, but there are more 2016 All-Stars on the Dominican WBC roster than on the U.S. WBC roster.

"Among a very significant part of our work force, the idea of playing for their country is a really big deal," Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "I don't think the Dominican or Puerto Rico had much problem getting their very best players to participate, and they do very well."

After the Dominican Republic won the last WBC, the team was feted with a championship parade in the streets of the capital and a luncheon with the Dominican president at the national palace. If the U.S. wins this WBC — and the U.S. is winless in the three tournaments so far — America will remain focused in its March Madness brackets.

Therein lies the conundrum: How can an event that is so successful around the world be so invisible in the host country, the one that calls baseball its national pastime?

Although companies could pay to slap their name on a WBC jersey patch, there is no corporate sponsor patch for the U.S. jerseys. AT&T bought a sponsor patch for the Mexico jerseys, as did T-Mobile for the Puerto Rico jerseys.

Of the four primary tournament sponsors, three are based in Japan, the other in Switzerland.

In Japan, a 2013 WBC game against the Netherlands attracted more viewers than any coverage from the 2012 Olympics. In Taiwan, a game against Japan was the highest-rated cable program in national history.

In Puerto Rico, which faced the Dominican Republic for the 2013 championship, the title game was the most-watched sporting event of the year.

Yet the stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco were barely half-full for that game, and for the two semifinal games. It is that kind of response — from the U.S. fans, and from the U.S. players — that sparked talk that this WBC might be the last.

"I don't see the fact that it's not perfect as a reason to get rid of it," Manfred said.

Manfred deflected a comparison to the World Cup, the premier event in international team play. He offered instead the Ryder Cup, the team golf challenge between the U.S. and Europe.

The Ryder Cup is 90 years old. The WBC is 11 years old.

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"The Ryder Cup, for everything that it is today, wasn't that on day one," Manfred said. "It takes time. I think that, with time, this event will become that big."

The WBC is profitable. This year's tournament is expected to generate more than $100 million in revenue, with $15 million shared among the teams, providing seed money to build facilities and expand youth leagues around the world.

Manfred said he is committed to the WBC "for as long as I am commissioner."

MLB launched the WBC after baseball was kicked out of the Olympics. With baseball back in the 2020 Olympics, the leader of the players' union is curious to see how that might impact the future of the WBC.

"I am hopeful that the event continues and anticipate it doing so going forward," said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. "I am interested in how the game continues to grow globally and how baseball finding itself back in the Olympics in 2020 manifests itself in that conversation."

The U.S. has its best WBC roster yet, with a star-studded offense that includes Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Buster Posey.

"Once it starts," Clark said, "it's amazing to me how often the phone rings, from guys who wish they had participated."

Said Kershaw: "It's just hard, the timing of it more than anything. If everybody was 100% ready to go, it's always fun to put USA on your jersey. I've gotten to do that before, as a teenager. To represent your country, that's cool."

What Kershaw means by timing is this: he is coming off an injury last season, and he does not wish to risk his readiness to help the Dodgers by accelerating his spring schedule to play for the U.S. Other players cite timing in backing away from the WBC, often preferring to adjust to a new team, or to avoid the perceived but unfounded increase in the risk of injury by playing games that count in March.

Kershaw is right about timing, but for a very different reason. The U.S. team could include Kershaw, Trout and the reincarnation of Babe Ruth, and still the WBC would remain largely invisible this time of year, what with March Madness and spring training, and with NBA and NHL teams pushing toward the playoffs.

Baseball has the sports calendar almost all to itself in July. In WBC years — once every four years — cancel the All-Star game and play the tournament finals during what would be All-Star week. Make it a final four, or a final eight, with unlimited roster substitutions from previous rounds, which would continue to be held in the fall or spring.

That means Kershaw or Trout could play in July, when no one is concerned about the slow build toward the regular season and pitchers could extend themselves. No March Madness, no spring training, no NBA, no NHL. The world would be watching, and the baseball would be — dare we say it? — classic.

"The tournament is still growing into its long-term identity," said Chris Park, MLB senior vice president and the league's point man on the WBC. "To that end, I think the ultimate goal is for international team play is to occupy a meaningful window in the regular baseball calendar."

In the meantime, the semifinals and final are at Dodger Stadium. The most spirited game ever played there — sustained noise from start to finish — came in the 2009 WBC final between Japan and Korea.

Fans in Asia and Latin America bring the noise themselves. They don't need computer-generated images of clapping hands or a brain-rattling sound system. It's more fun that way, for players but also for fans.

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Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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