This is the last World Baseball Classic article that I’m going to write for probably 3½ years, and that makes me sad. I’ve been following the WBC since the very first one in 2006, and each one has been better than the last one. If the next one is even better than the one that we just finished, then it’s a bummer that we’re going to have to wait until 2021 to see it.
Interest in the WBC spiked in its fourth running. Total attendance for the tournament topped one million fans for the first time. Television ratings in the United States were up between 30 and 40 percent over 2013. The final between Team USA and Team Puerto Rico drew 2.3 million viewers, making it the second-most watched game on the MLB Network ever. Another 800,000 watched in Spanish on ESPN2 for a total of 3.1 million viewers. The 2013 final between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico only drew 1.1 million US viewers.
Those numbers show that the WBC has come a long ways, but still has a long ways to go. Before the tournament, there was a lot of talk that this would be the final WBC. I put pretty much zero stock in those reports. For one, commissioner Rob Manfred said it would continue. Also, these stories were coming exclusively from New York-based reporters, and it’s been clear to anyone who has followed the tournament over the past 15 years that the Yankees hate it, and pretty much everything else that doesn’t directly benefit the Yankees, and want to see it killed. Their whisper campaign isn’t even subtle anymore. But that talk is likely dead now. After those numbers, there is no way there won’t be a WBC in 2021.
But while those numbers ensure that the WBC will continue, I say it still has a way to go because it’s still more of a celebration of baseball than a baseball tournament. In soccer’s World Cup, no one would be throwing a parade for the second-place team, win-or-lose. (And not just because it upsets Adam Jones.) Winning matters. I won’t say that winning didn’t matter in the 2017 WBC because it did — but it didn’t matter as much as a celebration of sport and diversity. I wrote during the tournament that we will know that the World Baseball Classic will have arrived as a major sporting event when sports radio starts calling for Team USA manager Jim Leyland to bench Nolan Arenado (who struggled in this tournament) for Josh Harrison. Maybe that will be a change for the worse, but that would be a sign that people really care about who wins or loses.
Having said that, as a way for baseball to come together and celebrate what it means to be an international sport, the World Baseball Classic hit a home run in 2017. We saw the amazing flair that the Latin American players competed with, and most of us thought it was wonderful. We saw the different ways that the fans of each country celebrate the sport. The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico fans played their musical instruments in the stands. (It is NOT a cheese grater, by the way.) A mini-orchestra in the stands supporting Japan played different walkup music for each Japanese player. Korea and Chinese Taipei got their fans going with cheerleaders standing on top of the dugout. No matter how bad the scores got, those young women never lost their spirit.
And then there are the players. I could link to dozens of players who said playing in the WBC was the best baseball experience of their lives, or close to it. For Team USA, it was a lot of players who got to know guys they had been playing against their entire adult lives for the first time. For Team Puerto Rico, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and Carlos Correa finally got to live their dream of being teammates.
Something even more special happened to the “Americans” who played for teams other than Team USA. For Seth Lugo, he connected with his Puerto Rican roots for the first time in his life. He visited the island for the first time and met a bunch of cousins he barely knew about before. For a guy like the Cubs’ John Andreoli, by playing for Team Italy he got to show the world that he is a talented ballplayer, despite being buried in Iowa. Going back a ways, Mike Piazza had never visited Italy before participating in the WBC. Now he owns an Italian Football team in the third division and is thinking of living there six months a year.
But nothing was a better story than Team Israel. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of the “Jew Crew” at first. While the Americans on Team Italy or Team China at least had grandparents from that country, only two members of Team Israel had any connection to that country at all, other than being Jewish. But through participating in the WBC, that team discovered that they all had something that united them. Many of them are not religious and didn’t think twice about being Jewish (such as Ty Kelly, who was born and raised Catholic but has a Jewish mother), but together they realized something about who they were, and that brought them together. And I don’t think anyone is going to forget “The Mensch on the Bench” for a long time. Team Israel was terrific, and it was something the world needed right about now.
On the field, Team USA won. Before the tournament started, all the talk was of who wasn’t there, especially among pitchers. Without Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer (who had agreed to play but pulled out with a fractured finger) or Jake Arrieta, Team USA wasn’t thought to have the starting pitching to win their first WBC. But after going 3-2 over the first five games, Danny Duffy, Tanner Roark and, of course, Marcus Stroman pitched Team USA to three consecutive elimination game victories against the other three strongest teams in the tournament. Far from being a weakness, starting pitching was a strength. Team USA’s run undoubtedly played a role in the heightened interest in the 2017 tournament, and a lot of Americans were introduced to quality baseball players whom they might not have previously been familiar with.
Here are some other thoughts that I have on the 2017 World Baseball Classic before we turn the page on it for the last time.
Timing. There is no good time to hold the WBC. The dream would be that MLB, NPB, KBO and CPBL shut down for two weeks in July to hold the tournament, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The WBC made money, but it didn’t make enough money to make up for the loss of all those home dates in four different leagues. Some have suggested playing the first two rounds in March and then the semis and final in July during the All-Star Break.
Personally, I think that would break the momentum from the earlier rounds and besides, there would be the matter of the three Asian professional leagues having to shut down as well. For the time being, I think the WBC is going to have to continue in March, although there were reports that the plan is to move it back closer to the end of the month so that the players will be closer to game shape. However, as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Tayler noted, “WBC games have the intensity of playoff baseball with all the baserunning and fielding mistakes of Spring Training, which is a fun combo.” I think we’re just going to have to live with that fun combo for a while.
Extra inning rules. I read a lot of kvetching about the international tie-breaker rules where teams start the 11th inning with runners on first and second. Surprisingly, I did see several sportswriters defend the idea as a good one, although none of them were arguing that it should be used in anything other than situations like this.
The issue is that in a tournament with strict pitch counts, a game that goes 13 or 14 innings will have teams run out of pitchers. I wonder if a partial solution, and this may be me as a soccer fan talking, is to call games still tied after 11 innings a draw, at least in pool play. Since that is a four-team round-robin, a tie game would likely avoid having to go to tiebreaker procedures as often. Speaking of which . . .
Tie-breaker rules: They were stupid and Mexico got robbed. The addition of an extra game after pool play to determine who advance was great in the case of a three-team tie. But the way they decide which two teams play (runs allowed per inning pitched) is stupid. Fix this.
Colombia. There have only been 20 players in major league history that have come from that soccer-mad South American country. That’s in sharp contrast to their neighboring country Venezuela, which has produced 358 major leaguers. Yet Colombia came oh-so-close to advancing out of a pool that included the United States and the Dominican Republic. I don’t think baseball is going to compete with soccer anytime soon in Colombia, but it would be wonderful if their success in this tournament would fuel a second sport for the kids of that country to compete in.
Eye-opening performances. In the end, it may have turned out for the best that some of the biggest US stars passed on the tournament. Because of that, we got to see breakout performances from young stars like Stroman and Christian Yelich. Maybe Mike Trout makes that incredible catch by Adam Jones, but we know that Adam Jones made it. Jones has been a quietly good player toiling in Baltimore for years. For two weeks, he became a national hero. It’s surely worth another look at that catch.
Outside of that, we got to see other players even more ignored in the US step up and show that they could play this game. I mentioned Andreoli earlier, but Wladimir Balentien was a player that everyone forgot about after he left Cincinnati for Japan, where he became a home run champion. In the WBC, he demonstrated that he can still hit major league pitching and was named to the All-Tournament Team. A similar fate met Team Israel’s Josh Zeid, who was in Independent ball this time last year before signing with the Mets in June of 2016. He was let go at the end of last season, but after making the All-Tournament Team with 10 scoreless innings of relief and two saves for Israel, he was signed last week by the Cardinals.
One thing that is clear from this tournament is that the difference in quality between guys in the majors and players in overseas leagues or in the high minors isn’t all that great.
Baseball is a great sport. I just have to end with this. This tournament was a celebration of baseball and bringing the world closer together through sport. In the end, that’s really a lot more important than who wins and loses, right?