Edwin Díaz, Power, Money, and the Future of International Baseball

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When Edwin Díaz fell to the LoanDepot Park turf on Wednesday night, moments after closing out one of the most exciting and important contests of the WBC so far, his injury immediately overshadowed the immense gravity of the game that had preceded it.

As with any injury to any star player, the overriding reaction was one of concern. Concern for Díaz, for his home island’s team, and for the Mets, who could be without the best relief pitcher in baseball for a long time. As of Wednesday evening, there’s little information about the severity of Díaz’s injury (per the Mets, he’ll undergo imaging tomorrow), but given the mood of his teammates and the fact that he left the field in a wheelchair, it’s understandable to fear the worst.

Mixed in with concern for the player, however, is concern for the future of the World Baseball Classic itself.

MLB teams have already been reluctant to release their best players, particularly their pitchers, for this tournament. Clayton Kershaw, the most decorated American pitcher of his generation, had been eager to wear his country’s colors but had to pull out of the tournament when he could not get insurance clearance to participate. On Sunday, Mexico beat the hell out of an American pitching staff that, while stocked with quality big leaguers, was miles from the best the U.S. could have sent and was further handcuffed by usage restrictions imposed by players’ club teams. In the wake of that jarring loss, Ken Rosenthal published a column at The Athletic with an incendiary headline: “If Team USA will be handcuffed by pitching restrictions, is it worth even playing in WBC?”

Therein, Rosenthal highlighted the conflict between playing to win the WBC and playing to prepare for the MLB season. This is a particularly American problem. The major leagues of Japan and South Korea don’t seem much troubled by this conflict, nor do the superstars who turn out in droves for the Dominican Republic, Japan, Puerto Rico, or Venezuela. Or many of the American players who made the trip, it should be said; the hallmark of a somewhat rocky American trip through the group stage has been Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Tim Anderson and others showing the world what they can do.

The injury to Díaz and the minor hamstring tweak Freddie Freeman suffered Tuesday fueled concern that these injuries could imperil the WBC’s future, either as MLB owners lobby for its cancellation, or as individual teams pressure their stars to sit it out.

There are those who view the WBC as nothing more than a stunt, not worthy of risking injury for, while others see it as an exciting and important event apart from the MLB regular season, and worthy of more than its current subordinate role to the latter. (Full disclosure: I’m in the second camp. And the fact that Díaz was even celebrating this win so heavily, not to mention the grilling that Dominican Republic manager Rodney Linares took in the postgame press conference for his country’s group stage exit, suggests that I’m not alone.)

But that’s not the issue. As upsetting as Díaz’s injury was, emotions were as high in the moments afterward as they will ever be, for both proponents and detractors of the WBC. The issue is this: Should MLB teams have the right to unilaterally prevent their athletes from participating in international competition?

International team sports competitions operate on one of five levels:

  • Level one: The sport is, for all intents and purposes, not contested between national teams. (American football)
  • Level two: The sport is contested between national teams, but talent and money in the professional game is concentrated in one league that determines the conditions of international competition. (Baseball)
  • Level three: The international game is administered by an established independent body that still is not powerful enough to dictate terms to the richest professional leagues and teams. (Basketball, ice hockey)
  • Level four: The international game is administered by a powerful independent body that establishes rules that a decentralized network of professional leagues must follow. (Soccer)
  • Level five: The international sanctioning body and professional league are one and the same. (Cycling)

Now, having a powerful international sanctioning body can be (stares accusingly at FIFA, the IOC, the UCI, the FIA, etc.) fraught. But such an establishment puts power in the hands of the group that at least ostensibly operates in the best interest of the sport. The World Cup attracts the best soccer players on the planet, the largest viewing audiences, the highest standard of competition, because FIFA mandates that clubs must release whichever players wish to go.

Professional sports teams make truly astonishing sums of money without actually producing anything. Their only asset is the labor of their athletes, and so they guard that labor jealously. Not just because a prized player might get hurt, but because if anyone else profits off a player’s performance it represents lost value and control for the primary employer. The people who own sports franchises don’t like that. And the history of the club vs. international game in the 2010s was one of team owners trying to pull the international game back a level.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is a longtime critic of international basketball, and is only unusual in that he’s willing to state his objection plainly. After 16 years of sending pros to the Olympics, the NHL pulled out of the 2018 Games, and took the opportunity to stage a World Cup of Hockey in 2016 as a replacement. A World Cup of Hockey organized by, and benefiting, the NHL. Even in soccer, where the FIFA mandate and the World Cup are so well-established nobody questions it, there’s pushback from lower levels. UEFA, the European sanctioning body that governs the prestigious Champions League, is in a constant struggle against FIFA for control.

The normative response is that athletes, as human beings, have a right to participate in international competitions as a matter of bodily autonomy and self-determination. Teams rent athletes’ labor, but they do not own athletes’ bodies. If a baseball player wants to play in an international tournament for national pride, for the benefit of the sport, for the benefit of fans, he ought to have the right to do so if he so chooses. He ought to be able to weigh those factors against his standing with his trade team and make a decision that works for him. Besides, baseball players get hurt constantly, while running drills, riding in taxi cabs, and having nightmares about spiders.

But norms don’t talk at this level. Money does.

The immaturity of the WBC, ironically, could be the very thing that protects it from nervous club owners. If Díaz and Freeman had gotten hurt in a WBSC-sanctioned tournament from which MLB did not profit, the league would be in total alignment with its teams. But the WBC is for all intents and purposes an MLB-controlled competition, the very kind of thing the NHL is trying to tank hockey’s international game to build. MLB will not give that up lightly, even if individual teams attempt to assert greater control over their players the next time the tournament comes around.

Díaz’s freak injury is worth fretting about, but MLB would be foolish to let it threaten the future of the WBC.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
1 year ago

As a Mets fan who is currently very unhappy indeed about Diaz, I will just say, again, that I don’t see the anti-WBC arguments about this as making much sense. Freak injuries can happen anywhere and anytime, because athletes are human beings. If there is any marginal difference in injury probability at all between playing baseball in the WBC and playing baseball in spring training, due to whatever increase in intensity you get in the WBC environment, it’s still not large enough to matter compared to the joy of the competition.

(And in any case that small marginal difference in intensity wouldn’t really be relevant to the case of Diaz’s injury, which was apparently sustained while doing the totally normal human, non-athletic activity of jumping up and down. If he had hurt himself jumping up and down at a concert or a birthday party, people wouldn’t be calling for those things to be banned. The only truly relevant principle here is: Shit happens.)

1 year ago

Gavin Lux tore his ACL stepping out of the way of a throw. Its just … something that can always happen at any time

1 year ago

This upset but understanding Mets fan agrees. I’m still excited to watch them this summer. Plus, the WBC has been electric.

1 year ago

If a player gets hurt in spring training or the regular season, at least it’s in service to games that matter.

Matthew Habelmember
1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

Before last night, when is the last game Mike Trout played in that “mattered”?

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

Clearly it mattered to Diaz which is why he was jumping up and down. It doesn’t need to matter to Martin from Flushing for it to matter.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

In as much as the line “Professional sports teams make truly astonishing sums of money without actually producing anything” is utter and complete nonsense…what they DO produce is entertainment. To that end, if the WBC is entertaining than it matters.

Last edited 1 year ago by HappyFunBall
1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Ya that was a bizarre statement. They produce the green and gold laundry for which I root.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

what matters is personal. mlb doesn’t matter to a lot of people. my wife wouldn’t be upset if baseball ceased to exist.

mlb matters to some people. the wbc matters to some people.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

nothing matters

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

I appreciate when trolls make it clearer they’re joking.

1 year ago

Well in ST no one jumps up and down after a victory so that amount of intensity made a difference but in general stuff happens.

1 year ago

I believe that dangerous activities such as jumping up and down are banned as part of the standard player contract, alongside pickup basketball, riding a motorcycle, and being chased bus wild boar.

(I am not sure if I am kidding or not, it would not surprise me)

1 year ago

I get why players don’t want to risk it, especially pitchers. I don’t begrudge them that at all.

But from a fan perspective…I really don’t buy that we should specifically want players to avoid the WBC. The players and their agents are all very aware of the risks already. Give them the credit for making an informed decision.

And obviously this incident should not change the risk / reward analysis. If he blew out his arm, that’s what we would all be worrying about. This is a freak occurrence.