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The World Baseball Classic Matters

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Most American baseball fans ignore the WBC. That’s a mistake.

World Baseball Classic - Championship - Puerto Rico v Dominican Republic Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Assuming that most of you reading this are English-speaking Americans, it’s a safe bet that most of you haven’t paid much attention to the World Baseball Classic, which will begin its fourth tournament early Monday morning (really early, like 3:30 a.m. Chicago time early) in Seoul, South Korea. But I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t care about the World Baseball Classic, this is a big tournament. It’s the biggest international baseball tournament around. This tournament matters.

Former commissioner Bud Selig created the WBC in 2006, in part to make up for baseball being dropped from the Olympics but also to create the kind of excitement for baseball that the World Cup creates for soccer. But mostly, as laid out in this article in Baseball America, the WBC had three goals. The first goal was to expand opportunities for baseball players to compete on the international stage, making up for the loss of the Olympics. The second was to encourage the growth of baseball around the world. And because this is MLB and not a charity, the third goal was to make money. Over the first three tournaments, the WBC has accomplished all three of those goals.

There are a lot of current MLB stars who Americans first got a look at in the World Baseball Classic. Japanese aces such as Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara and Kenta Maeda, Cuban sluggers like Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes and Korean stars like Jung Ho Kang all played in the WBC before they played in MLB. There have also been several minor league players who were outstanding in the WBC before establishing themselves in MLB—like Jonathan Schoop and Xander Bogaerts did in 2013 while leading the Netherlands to a surprising spot in the final four.

And then there is Kenley Jansen, who we first got a good look at playing for the Netherlands as a catcher in 2009.

OK, maybe that’s not relevant to the importance of the WBC, but isn’t it fun watching a minor-league Jansen gun down Ryan Braun from his knees trying to steal second? It was after this that the Dodgers decided if Jansen could throw that hard, maybe he was being wasted behind the plate.

Secondly, the growth of international baseball since the first WBC in 2006 has been remarkable. Sure, more has been going on than just the WBC to promote the worldwide growth of the game, but the WBC has been the centerpiece of those efforts. Just look at the growth of Korean baseball over the past ten years. The quality of the KBO has increased to the point where players like Kang or Hyun Soo Kim can make the jump directly from the Korean league to MLB without having to play in the minors or Japan first. The 2017 WBC will begin Monday in Gocheok Sky Dome, a brand new stadium that is Korea’s first domed baseball stadium. It wasn’t built just for the WBC, but the increasing popularity of the sport in Korea since 2006 made the construction of such a facility possible.

Or take Pakistan. The sport of baseball was unheard of in one of the most populous countries in the world until a national team was created in the ‘90s to compete in the Olympics. Without the WBC, that team likely would have died when Olympics cut the sport. But the team continued with the goal of making the WBC and the team did manage to qualify for the Brooklyn qualifier this past September—despite there not being a proper baseball diamond anywhere in the country and most of their players not having proper equipment. Sure, Pakistan wasn’t very good and was dispatched of pretty quickly and won’t be competing this month, but who knows how good the team will be in 12 or 16 years because of this?

Because the Netherlands qualified for the semifinals last time, their national baseball federation had the money to build the first modern baseball stadium in the country, as noted in the Baseball America article linked to above. It’s good enough that it can be used for regular-season major league games and it almost certainly will be sometime in the near future.

Finally, the WBC makes money. Yes, the TV ratings in the US are pretty disappointing, but they are among the highest-rated sporting events in Japan, Korea and the Caribbean. There is no shortage of international corporations wanting to attach their name to the WBC as sponsors. And as in the case of the Dutch team four years ago, the profits from these games get plowed into developing and expanding the sport in their respective countries.

But above all, the WBC matters because it’s fun. There have been some terrific games throughout the history of the WBC. The Netherlands upsetting the Dominican Republic twice in 2009 were both thrilling games. The final between Japan and Cuba in 2006 with Daisuke Matsuzaka was a close, tense affair until the ninth inning. Passions run high each time traditional rivals Japan and Korea face off. Add to that the pageantry of international competition and great traditions of Caribbean and Asian baseball fans, and the WBC is a party about baseball. Just look at that picture of the Dominicans celebrating their 2013 title. Does that look like they are celebrating something that doesn’t matter?

Is the WBC perfect? Of course not. March is not the best time to hold such a tournament and the only thing it has to recommend itself is that it’s less bad than any other time. The perfect time would be probably be early June, but MLB is loathe to shut itself down for three weeks at its most profitable time of the year. The pitch counts on pitchers are annoying, but they are necessary for the WBC to obtain insurance for the contracts of the participating players. Some of the games, frankly, are mismatches, although we live in hope for more shocking upsets like the Netherlands over the Dominican Republic in 2009 or Brazil over Panama in the 2013 Qualifiers.

One thing that is not a problem, however, is injuries. Every bit of research done by MLB (or anyone else) shows that players who participate in the WBC get injured at the same rate as players who don’t. Every tournament some player gets hurt and some knuckleheaded sports yakker on the radio will blame the WBC for the injury, but when a player from the same team gets injured in Spring Training, no one ever blames Spring Training. Injuries happen.

You don’t have to watch the World Baseball Classic if you don’t want to. I wish you would, but no one can make you. Even I’m not a big enough a fanatic to stay up all night to watch the games from the Far East live. (Although I will record some of them.) But if you are being honest with yourself, you do need to admit that the World Baseball Classic is an important part of the future of baseball and that the sport of baseball is in a better place because of it.

Besides, when is more baseball a bad thing? Play ball!