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Superstar injuries at World Baseball Classic 2023 aren’t an ‘I told you so moment’

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Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The celebrations and hyperbole had barely landed Saturday night in Miami when news began to filter out of the Team Venezuela clubhouse at the World Baseball Classic in Miami that Houston Astros star Jose Altuve had, indeed, broken his thumb.

By the time the Astros front office confirmed Sunday morning the severity of the long-term injury, which will require surgery, the media, and social media waters roiled with I-told-you-so WBC haters against the OK-Boomer/Stuff-Happens/Feel-the-Vibe/You-Don’t-Get-It WBC fans.

Actually, fans and players.

“There’s no reason the stars should not be playing in this,” St. Louis Cardinals star Nolan Arenado said Sunday (via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale).

Related: World Baseball Classic schedule – Get watch time’s for the next WBC games

A few hours later, Arenado helped make the argument against his own point when he was hit by a pitch on the hand and left Team USA’s victory over Cuba — a game Chicago White Sox third baseman also was forced to exit early because of injury, bruising his ribs in a collision in the field.

Arenado fared much better than Altuve, who suffered his injury when also being hit by a pitch — just three days after New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz’s season-ending knee injury suffered while jumping up and down during Puerto Rico’s post-win celebration.

That’s more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of key ballplayers for 100-win, playoff-contending teams in Altuve and Diaz alone, dealing sizable blows by leaving sizable holes on their respective rosters.

And that doesn’t count $162 million All-Star Freddie Freeman of the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers, who left a Team Canada game because of hamstring tightness a day before Diaz’s injury.

Injured stars and World Baseball Classic

Who knows if any or even all of those players would have avoided those injuries if the only baseball games for big-leaguers in spring training actually happened at spring training.

But two things are certain. 

First, the worst week for injuries in the five iterations of this 17-year-old event has and likely will continue to be used to support calls to get rid of the World Baseball Classic.

But second, and just as certain: Injury risk is a bad case to make for that cause.

Injuries occasionally happen, and the risk is there whenever players take the field, whether it’s Altuve in a high-energy World Baseball Classic game, the Mets’ Brandon Nimmo suffering knee and ankle sprains running the bases Friday in a lower wattage spring game — or even then-prospect Christian Villanueva missing the 2016 season after breaking his leg on a spring practice field simply leaping for a line drive on the infield and landing wrong.

As three-time manager of the year Joe Maddon used to say, “If you’re worried about guys getting hurt constantly, that’s a bad premise to start from. It’s part of the game.”

In fact, worrying about the risk increases it, Maddon posited.

“I want them to go play. I think if you go in with that kind of an attitude, the chances of getting hurt are less,” he said more than once.

Whether he’s right, the World Baseball Classic is here to stay and might be more popular than it’s ever been, with several attendance records set during this year’s tournament.

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest indicator might be that it’s begun winning over enough American players in recent years that Mike Trout played this year, and Team USA hitters up and down the lineup seemed genuinely struck by the volume and fervor of a packed stadium during the quarterfinal comeback over Venezuela secured on Trea Turner’s grand slam.

“I can’t believe anybody would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like this,” Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. 

Spring training isn’t the ideal time to hold such a tournament. It might be the worst time of year. Except for all the others. That was widely debated leading up to the inaugural WBC before settling on this time of year for the event designed to be played every three years (then changed to every four).

But even if players raving about the tournament are blowing as much smoke publicly as team executives and managers who “support” their players missing chunks of camp for the event, the injury risk is no reason to call for scuttling the World Baseball Classic or player boycotts. No matter how much said players are being paid.

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That’s part of the cost of doing business in the majors and the deal the industry makes with the devil of the details of a spring tournament like this.

Details like 40 nations with participating teams now being exposed to this version of big-league ball as part of MLB’s continuing effort to grow markets and industry revenues, which, in turn, generally leads to higher payrolls.

If that’s not worth staging a World Cup-like baseball tournament, then that’s the argument to make against the WBC: the crass cash grab it represents. But then you’re essentially arguing against professional sports.

The financial cost specifically of Altuve’s and Diaz’s huge salaries is reportedly covered by insurance on their contracts in both cases while they’re out. The baseball cost to their teams obviously is another matter.

“You can’t replace a player like this, this close to the season,” Astros GM Dana Brown said Sunday when giving reporters the update on Altuve. “These players don’t exist.”

No doubt. The same goes for the New York Yankees and $162 million pitcher Carlos Rodon (elbow), All-Star catcher Jose Trevino (sprained wrist), and center fielder Harrison Bader (oblique). The same goes for Nimmo. And the Chicago Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki (oblique). And the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin (ankle sprain). And the San Diego Padres’ Joe Musgrove (broken toe). And the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tyler Glasnow (oblique). 

All of them were injured during spring training, nowhere near the WBC.

Maybe the World Baseball Classic isn’t as great as MLB officials and players would have you believe. Maybe they should get rid of it. Just don’t believe that’s going to keep baseball players from getting hurt playing baseball in March.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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