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Rob Smaal

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Be like Ichiro--Do it for your country

by Rob Smaal (Feb 3, 2009)

With a myriad of international matches in the sport, professional soccer players are well versed in the age old club-versus-country debate, which has gotten contentious at times.

In baseball, however, the issue has not really been an issue--until recently.

With the Olympics forbidding pros for years and no real legitimate World Cup-style event for America's national pastime, ballplayers were free to concentrate on performing for the clubs that were shelling out big bucks for their services.

But in the past few years, with professionals being allowed--encouraged even--to participate in the Olympics (although that will no longer be the case until 2016, at the earliest) and with the advent of the World Baseball Classic, a lot of players are having to make some tough decisions.

It probably seems like a no-brainer to the average sports fan out there, who has likely dreamed of representing their country in something--in anything, really--on the international stage.

Yomiuri Giants right-hander Seth Greisinger, a player not prone to getting emotional, recalled that when he took the mound for Team USA at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, "the game I had played all my life suddenly changed ... I could literally feel the vibrations from (the cheering fans') voices. That's hard to ignore, but even harder to forget."

But for every Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia, players who are pumped to put on the national colors, there seems to be a Josh Hamilton or Ryan Howard balking at the prospect. Unfortunately, for every keener like Ichiro or Dice-K, there is a Cole Hamels or Fernando Seguignol, a Panamanian slugger who said he would be skipping the WBC to focus on getting prepared for the NPB season with his new club, the perennial Pacific League doormat Rakuten Eagles.

While players are free to choose, do clubs sometimes put pressure on them to help sway their decisions? Of course they do, and with high-paying jobs at stake, many players feel they cannot afford to shake off those signs.

For stars like Jeter and Ichiro, who are secure in their day jobs, the only real issues are health related--if they're not injured, they'll be there.

For others, who are perhaps battling for that left-handed pinch-hitter role off the bench or trying to catch on as a fourth outfielder, it's not quite so clear-cut. And then you have those who have signed lucrative new deals with their MLB or NPB clubs and feel it's their obligation to return a little of that love by committing to their ballclubs throughout the spring.

The players do get paid a nominal fee to participate in events like the WBC from their respective federations and some are also in line for a share of the profits from licensing agreements, but for most of these millionaires it amounts to chump change. More importantly, they are heavily insured against career-threatening injury.

But this shouldn't be about money or even job security. As Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine says, "It's an honor to play for your country."

And if you don't take the opportunity when it presents itself, you could very well come to regret it. Take the case of New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, for instance. In 2006, Matsui famously disappointed his legion of Japanese fans--and missed out on the biggest moment in his country's baseball history--when he passed on the WBC out of a sense of loyalty to the Yanks. This time around, he won't get a chance to play as he rehabs a knee injury while Japan defends its title.

The debate over club or country is even turning players against one another. Entering the 2006 season, current Yakult Swallows outfielder Aaron Guiel was battling for a roster spot on the Kansas City Royals, having started the previous season in Triple-A Omaha before getting called up to the big club in late August. Still, when Baseball Canada called, Guiel answered, jumping at the chance to wear the Maple Leaf in the WBC.

Fast-forward three years. Canadian pitcher Ryan Dempster is coming off a 17-win season with the Chicago Cubs and the club has rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million (4.7 billion yen) deal. Dempster has decided to skip the WBC, which he has referred to as an "exhibition tournament," a decision that does not sit well with the likes of former Canadian MLB star Larry Walker and Guiel, who voiced his disappointment recently on a Vancouver sports radio show. Guiel--who told Team 1040 that "it's really disappointing to see a guy like Ryan Dempster bow out strictly because of a contract he signed"--was not backing off those comments when reached at Swallows' camp in Okinawa on Sunday.

"Justin Morneau (of the Minnesota Twins) carries the weight of the sport on his shoulders for Baseball Canada, and Dempster is in the same category," Guiel reiterated. "All the legitimate reasons for Ryan not to play--it being his free-agent year, fighting for a job, having health issues--do not apply in his case. He's got no excuse, he's healthy."

As Guiel also pointed out, there is no question that guys nursing injuries or recovering from injuries should not take part in events of this nature. The jury is still out, however, on players who sit out largely to preserve and protect lucrative paydays.

Can a guy be blamed for wanting to maximize his earning potential in what is often a short--by regular standards, at least--career? Obviously not, but that's a personal choice.

Regardless of your take on this subject, one thing is certain--with the continued success of the WBC and with baseball lobbying to get reinstated into the Olympics after 2012, it is not an issue that is going away anytime soon.

For the sake of the game, it's time for the world's best ballplayers to forget about those league pennants for a couple of weeks every few years and to show some pride in their national flags.


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