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World Baseball Classic: Introduction and preview

The 5th World Baseball Classic starts on Wednesday in Taichung, Taiwan. Here’s why you should watch, how to watch and what to look for.

2017 Puerto Rico Verses Netherlands During World Baseball Classic Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

It’s the holiday season for those of us who are international baseball fans. That’s because for the first time since 2017, the World Baseball Classic will be played this month.

Most of you probably already know this, but the WBC is the preeminent international baseball tournament. It’s the baseball version of the World Cups in soccer or hockey. Teams from 20 countries are invited to meet every four years to play each other for baseball supremacy. This tournament was delayed by two years because of the pandemic and collective bargaining talks, but it’s now back and bigger than ever.

There are a few reasons that you should care about the WBC. The first, and most important reason, is that it is some of the most fun baseball you’ll ever watch. On the field, you can tell that the players all take pride in wearing their country on their jersey. The emotion that players show is a little bigger when they know their whole country is behind them.

There’s also the David vs. Goliath aspect of some of the games that you don’t get in something like the MLB playoffs. The 2009 Netherlands team knocking the powerful Dominican Republic team out of the tournament is still one of the most famous moments in the history of the WBC.

Off the field, it’s a lot of fun as well. Different countries bring their own traditions to the tournament that you might not otherwise see. Everyone is waving flags and wearing costumes in their national colors. Teams often create their own traditions as well, like Team Israel’s “Mensch on the Bench” mascot from 2017.

Also, many of the MLB stars of tomorrow will get their first exposure in the WBC. Seiya Suzuki, for example, played for Team Japan in 2017 before he came to the Cubs. Yu Darvish played in the 2009 WBC. Jonathan Schoop was a minor leaguer in the Orioles system when he starred for the Netherlands in the 2013 WBC. There are many more examples.

There’s one more reason why the WBC is so important. It is a big piece of the effort that MLB makes to try to expand the popularity of baseball around the world. For example, someone from Great Britain or Australia might tune into the broadcasts to see their national team and end up as a fan of the game in general. (That’s how a lot of Americans became soccer fans, for example.) But another reason has to do with the international politics of sport. Many countries have something like a “Ministry of Sport” with a budget to spend on encouraging sports participation in their country. These government agencies are also tasked with bringing home international glory for their country. Most of that is done through the Olympics or similar continental competitions, but events like the WBC count too. When a team from a country like the Czech Republic or Panama qualifies for a tournament like this, the proper government agencies takes notice. That can mean more funding and promotion of youth baseball, for example.

How does this all work? There are 20 teams in the 2023 WBC, divided into four groups of five. Group A plays in Taichung, Taiwan starting next Wednesday, March 8. Group B competes at the Tokyo Dome starting on March 9. Group C plays at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and Group D plays at the Marlins’ LoanDepot Park. Both Group C and D start on Saturday, March 11.

The five teams in each group will play a round-robin and the top two teams will move on to the quarterfinals starting on March 15. The semifinals between Groups A and B will be played at the Tokyo Dome and the one between Group C and D will be in Miami. Then the semifinals and the finals will be played in Miami between March 19 and March 21.

Beyond finishing in the top two and advancing to the quarterfinals, there’s another bit of drama going on in group play. The teams that finish first through fourth automatically qualify for the next WBC. Teams that finish last in group play have to go through a qualifying process to make the next tournament. Countries do not want to have to go through qualifying, so there is strong incentive even for the weaker teams to try to win at least one game.

Great! How do I watch? You could buy a ticket and see the game in person. Al Yellon is going to the March 13 game in Phoenix between the USA and Canada. Sara Sanchez will be in Miami to attend the March 11 game between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and the March 12 game between Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

But you probably mean how can you watch all of this on TV. Good news! All the games will be broadcast live on the Fox Sports family of networks: FOX, FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes and on-line with Tubi. Check your local listings for times and which game is on which channel. Be aware that depending on where you live, the Group A and Group B games will be on very late at night or early in the morning.

Here are the schedules for the four pools (note the dates for Pool A and Pool B have the date listed first, then the month). Times listed are Eastern, except for Pool C in Phoenix, which are listed in Mountain time.

What about all those silly rules? OK, there are a few rules changes for the WBC. An MLB (or even an NPB or KBO) team doesn’t want their star pitcher throwing a 120-pitch complete game in March, so there are pitch limits. Those change depending on which round of the tournament it is, but don’t worry. If you’re watching, the broadcasters will explain it to you as soon as it comes into play.

There is also a mercy rule, where a game ends if one team is up by 10 runs after seven innings or 15 runs after five.

But there’s no pitch clock or rules against shifting, so if you’re against those changes, this could be the last baseball you get to watch without them. There is, however, the runner on second in extra innings rule.

Who are the favorites? I plan to do previews of the four groups in the next few days, but you should know that Japan won the WBC in 2006 and 2009, the Dominican Republic won in 2013 and the United States took the title in 2017. The winner of this year’s tournament is very likely to be one of those three countries, with the Dominican Republic probably being the overall favorite.

Puerto Rico, which competes with its own team, has finished second in each of the past two tournaments and could certainly crash the party of the “big three” and win it all. If you’re looking for a longshot, the Netherlands has finished fourth in both 2013 and 2017 as well. They’ve got a slim chance to win it all.

Venezuela has a very talented roster as well, but they’ve underachieved in each of the last two tournaments. They’re lucky that the tournament expanded from 16 teams to 20 teams this time because otherwise Venezuela would have been forced into qualifying after finishing last in their group six years ago. In any case, Venezuela will be looking to prove that they’re better than they looked in the last two tournaments and are another interesting long-shot contender.

Korea also disappointed in 2017, failing to advance out of pool play despite playing the games in Seoul. They look better than they did six years ago, but they’ll be hard-pressed to equal their best-ever finish as runners-up in 2009. Making it to the final four would be a real achievement for the Koreans.

If you want a real longshot, take Team Italy. They start in Group A, which is probably the weakest of the four groups. They’ve also got a good collection of Italian-Americans (including three Cubs players — Ben DeLuzio, Miles Mastrobuoni and Vinny Nittoli) as well as a few native Italian players, mostly pitchers. Then there is naturalized Italian citizen and former Cub Robel Garcia on Team Italy as well.