Rost: Those bashing the WBC after Edwin Diaz’s injury are missing the point

Mar 17, 2023, 9:34 AM
WBC Edwin Diaz...
Edwin Diaz of Puerto Rico is helped off the field after being injured on March 15, 2023. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)
(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Friday is trash day in my neighborhood, but a few people brought their takes out early!

It started with an injury. On Wednesday, Mets’ star Edwin Díaz struck out Mariners outfielder Teoscar Hernández to seal Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic, the stacked tourney favorite, in the World Baseball Classic. The win earned them a bid to the quarterfinals and teammates swarmed him, jumped around, and then, suddenly, parted to reveal Díaz sitting upright on the ground holding his knee. ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the news no one wanted to hear the following afternoon: Díaz suffered a torn right patellar tendon and would likely miss the entire season. Weird. Freakish. Though for some, not unforseen.

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The best closer in baseball being shut down for the year wasn’t just nightmarish news for Mets fans but was also fuel onto the fire in a debate about whether baseball’s biggest stars should participate in the WBC – to many, a spring exhibition series that risks injury ahead of MLB’s regular season.

Sports commentator Keith Olbermann said as much in a tweet, though added some provocative flair:

A popular Barstool sports personality added that he hoped fans defending the WBC would see players on their team injured.

Now, I have to say two things quickly: First, both personalities are Mets fans. As someone who’s home team is the only club to have not appeared in a World Series, I feel a weird kinship with fanbases who are starved for a real win, and the Mets are one of them. I’ve loved Steve Cohen’s aggressiveness in building a championship team. I enjoy watching Díaz pitch and recognize an element of fun and pure filth is missing with him gone. Part of the vitriol is about having a fear realized.

Secondly, the bulk of sports media is focused on strong opinion. You can criticize that if you want to but it’s the same thing any sports fan would talk about with their friends, unless of course you began your day by telling your spouse you loved every NFL team’s signing in free agency this week and just hope everyone has fun this season. Calling out anyone’s opinion also means I should mention I’ve had some horrible takes of my own, including a prediction that the Seahawks would win five games last season. Having an opinion isn’t easy, especially when people are waiting to tear you to pieces when you’re wrong.

But man, these are really, really bad. Wishing injury on other players as retribution for fan frustration is a poor take. Adding a dash of misogyiny to try to make your opinion more provocative is dumb.

There’s also this: Díaz was hurt in a freak accident. He tore his patellar tendon jumping. Before any Mets fan says he wouldn’t have been celebrating at a spring training game, I’d like to remind you that the Mets literally practiced celebrating a World Series win during spring training last year. (When I was a child I practiced Oscar acceptance speeches in my room, so I get it.)

The WBC isn’t pointless. Because – and I can’t believe I’m stressing this point – not everything that doesn’t matter to you is pointless. Animosity for the tourney in this case stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of its draw, a choosey placement of risk, and a fundamental misunderstanding of athletes.

Let’s talk about risk. Any fan will worry about a player being hurt in a game, particularly when it feels like a game that doesn’t matter.

For NFL fans, nothing feels worse than seeing a star go down in a preseason contest. For baseball fans, it’s a gut punch to see a player injured in a spring training game. But it happens. Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux tore his ACL during a routine play in a spring training game.

It also happens off the field. There are not one, not two, not three or four, but five fairly notable examples of pro athletes being hurt slipping in the shower. Wide receiver Nate Burleson broke his arm in a car accident after he tried to keep a pizza box from slipping in his backseat (on the plus side, he was later gifted free pizza for a year.) Former Astro Hunter Pence was injured when he walked through a glass door. Just last year, Angels reliever Archie Bradley broke a bone in his elbow when he fell over the dugout railing trying to enter a brawl between the Angels and Mariners.

Dumb stuff happens. And when it comes to the WBC, we’ll probably see another injury eventually. But I don’t know how many players will shy away from an event that, frankly, is kind of fun.

It’s not for everyone. But players participating have defended the tournament.

“Those things, they can happen to anybody at any given time,” Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, who is playing for Team USA, told reporters Wednesday. “And you can always try and place blame on the WBC, but that’s just a freak accident that could happen to anyone at any given time. This is so much fun. It’s so much fun. And this is way better than getting four at-bats in the back fields.”

Maybe Betts is trying to say the right thing. But for most, becoming a professional athlete requires a persistent, stubborn competitiveness. Expecting a professional athlete to give their all to a moment – but to only certain moments – is a misunderstanding of what makes someone competitive, regardless of industry. You know what sounds more fun than spring training to most players? A real game, and the WBC is as close as they’ll get to the regular season in the meantime.

That last bit is the most interesting thing about the WBC; it’s a tournament that means different things to different people.

For some, it means nothing. For others, though, it’s a chance to represent their country. Or a chance to play with friends from other teams. Or a chance to play in a fun environment. Or compete. Or get a shot at the majors.

A 21-year-old pitcher playing for Nicaragua this year struck out Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, and Rafael Devers and was rewarded with a contract from the Detroit Tigers. Team Panama qualified for the first time since 2009. Meanwhile, baseball culture in the Czech Republic is still finding its footing; US. baseball coaches were only allowed into the country beginning in 1989, following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and the national team qualified for the WBC for the first time this year. Its players also hold day jobs.

“I don’t know that (the WBC) is even on the same axis as (playoff baseball),” Reporter Clinton Yates told Bump and Stacy Tuesday. “It’s a totally different thing when you get in there and hear the chants and the noisemakers. There’s no world where a World Series sounds anything like a Caribbean series game. Not even close. It’s different because in general things, when the globe is involved, are gonna look very different than when they’re simply American. And that’s kind of another reason people are drawn to it even if they’re not huge baseball fans. You can look at it and go, ‘Oh, that looks like a party. I’m down for that.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that as a reason to go to a baseball game…

“In general, a lot of people sort of look at the WBC as if it’s just some reason to sort of root for the flag and cheer for your own country, and that’s one part of it. But to me, I come to that tournament from a point of curiosity; learning the different stories of the different teams… you can learn more about more baseball players. There’s nothing not to like about that. There are all these different nations that are at these different points in their development and seeing how they come together in these one-game scenarios, I don’t know man, I like baseball a lot. And that’s what makes it cool.”

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