SBJ/March 6 - 12, 2006/This Weeks News

MLB execs go toe-to-toe with skeptical media over the Classic

Major League Baseball issued nearly 3,500 media credentials for the World Baseball Classic, more than double the typical draw for a World Series. But MLB executives have quickly learned that white-hot level of press interest is not a clear blessing.

In the days leading up to the start of the tournament, the event itself and MLB executives received rough treatment from some leading media outlets, creating a fervent battle to control the direction of industry buzz.

That fight reached an early apex on Tuesday. That afternoon, Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business, was grilled mercilessly for 20 minutes by Mike Francesca on New York’s dominant WFAN-AM. Francesca opened the interview by calling the Classic “a foolish enterprise” and asking Brosnan, “you want [fans] to invest in a game that can end in a tie?” [Games in the first two rounds of the WBC deadlocked after 14 innings will remain a tie.]

Francesca asserted that the WBC will never be top-flight competition given its rules modifications, including pitch-count limits, and closed the interview by saying Brosnan “lives in Never Never Land.”

Brosnan held his own by telling Francesca that MLB “can’t make a business out of tradition” and that the competition is “just something you’re not used to.” He also invited the radio show host to be his guest for the Classic final in San Diego, which Francesca declined.

Later that same day, in an interview with USA Today, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called the tournament “bullshit.”

MLB publicists denied engaging in any damage control initiatives, but the following morning brought a stark reversal. MLB President Bob DuPuy took his own turn on WFAN, conducting a far more serene interview with Joe Benigno. Comments from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig similarly appeared on the front of USA Today’s sports section, proclaiming the WBC as “a watershed moment in baseball history.”

Dozens of other prominent outlets, including the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, have been running near-daily missives on the event’s perceived failings, notably the strong exodus of star players.

“One more time: This is not the Olympics,” wrote the Star-Ledger’s Dan Graziano. “The Olympics are a revered, centuries-old festival of global good will. This is something Bud Selig thought up to make money.”

Said Rich Levin, MLB senior vice president of public relations: “Staging an event of this magnitude is very difficult, with the all the venues around the world, but not so much [because of] the buzz. We’ve had some issues here in New York, which we assume to be directed in some part by the local club. But we’ve received a lot of attention around the country, a lot of it quite good. Most everybody knows the World Baseball Classic is happening, and that’s a great thing.”

Coverage in many major U.S. newspapers will focus on the U.S. team and the early-round pool play in Orlando, Fla., where the lauded Dominican Republic team will play archrival Venezuela.

“I’m sort of guarded in our commitment,” said Joe Sullivan, sports editor for the Boston Globe, which is assigning three writers to the WBC, but will rely on wire services for action in Puerto Rico and Japan. “I’m not sure exactly what we have on our hands here. We’re focusing more on the U.S. team and will have [game stories] for everything they do, and a handful of columns and color pieces to supplement. We’re obviously ready to ramp up as needed, but right now, I’d say we’re sort of middling until we know more.”

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