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World Baseball Classic: The future of baseball is béisbol

One lesson of the WBC could be: Expansion to San Juan and Mexico

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World Baseball Classic Semifinals: Mexico v Japan
The MVP of the World Baseball Classic, Shohei Ohtani, poses with the star of team Mexico, Randy Arozarena before a game in Miami
Photo by Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images

I’m still processing my unbelievable weekend at the World Baseball Classic, where I was fortunate enough to see the unlikely Venezuelan takeover of the Group of Death for this year’s tournament. The Venezuela squad stormed to wins against a Dominican Republic team that can casually be described as all stars and superstars behind phenomenal pitching before running that same script back on an almost as stacked Puerto Rico team. That allowed Venezuela to run the table in Miami pool play and set up a winner-take-all game between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

That game between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico was the greatest game of baseball I’d ever seen prior to the last week of baseball (more on that in a second) and it convinced me definitively that MLB does not need bigger bases, a pitch clock, or shift rules — it needs bat flips, celebrations, bands in the stands and children cheering for them in the streets. All of the rule changes aimed at fan engagement are missing the obvious: there are millions of fans who are already engaged with baseball who just don’t have proximity to a major league team.

There has been a lot of discussion of MLB expansion in recent years, The Athletic ran a series of articles this offseason centering that discussion on mid-market environments like Nashville, Portland, Las Vegas, and maybe even returning to Montreal. I’d like to propose a different solution — expand MLB to San Juan, Puerto Rico and Mexico City, Mexico. Stop trying to tweak the rules to reestablish a national pastime in middle America, and instead revitalize the league with béisbol.

Baseball, as we’ve all witnessed for the last two weeks is a truly international sport. Ginny Searle at Baseball Prospectus has a great write-up about why the league should be all in on the World Baseball Classic. You should read the whole piece, but this jumped out at me:

The WBC has been a rousing success by most any metric, both stateside and (to an even larger degree) worldwide. Leading up to the 15-day tournament, wider participation from some of the league’s most recognizable names was an encouraging sign, but from the start of pool play it became apparent this year’s WBC had captured an energy unmatched by any of the previous four iterations. Japan’s 42% viewership share during their team’s pool play games drew attention, but the home of the NPB was far from alone: According to Front Office Sports, Puerto Rico vs. the Dominican Republic had a 62% share; Chinese Taipei’s games in pool play were the most-watched sports programming in Taiwan in two years; merchandise sales broke the tournament’s all-time record by the conclusion of the first round; 10 pool games at Miami’s LoanDepot park drew an average of 29,585 fans, a 264% increase over the Marlins’ home attendance last year, and all five games played there between the quarterfinals and championship sold out.

It’s not just TV viewership. The players who participated from every team were emphatic that this was some of the best baseball they’ve ever participated in, but don’t take it from me. Take it from Searle, who captured these statements from MLB players who participated in the World Baseball Classic, including long-time Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright:

Adam Wainwright is 41 years old. He’s appeared in 486 big-league games, including 29 postseason appearances over nine trips to the playoffs. He has two rings and threw the pitch that clinched the Cardinals World Series title in 2006. The most fun he’s ever had on a baseball field in his “entire life,” though, came just a few days ago, in helping Team USA clinch its second consecutive trip to the WBC finals. Waino’s sentiment has been widely echoed, and he’s not the only player to awash in national pride. Eduardo Escobar said, “the most important thing is that we are representing our country and we have one name, Venezuela.” Díaz called the WBC the “most waited-for event in Puerto Rico.” Player outreach played a massive role in the increased participation among the elite, though it’s clear appetites for competition had been growing since the big finish to the last tournament: Mike Trout, Team USA captain and one of its primary recruiters (on behalf of the man who drafted him, U.S. general manager Tony Reagins) got pulled into the tournament off FOMO: “Watching it on TV, six years ago now, I felt like I wanted to be out there just to experience how much fun they were having … If I got the opportunity, I was going to try to do it. It’s special to me and my family.” J.T. Realmuto put it bluntly: “I can’t believe anybody would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like that.” For some players, detainment in spring training while Team Italy keeps an espresso machine in the dugout isn’t exactly by choice.

And who can blame them for wanting to be at the World Baseball Classic rather than taking two or three at bats in Spring Training split squad games? After all, earlier in this piece I described the Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico game as the best game I’d seen in my life prior to this week — But then, the following all happened in like three days:

On Saturday, that improbable juggernaut from Venezuela was leading the probable juggernaut from the United States seven to five in the eighth inning. They’d clawed their way back twice, after being down three to nothing and five to two. With six outs to go, Tim Anderson led off the eighth inning with a walk. Pete Alonso followed that up with a single. J.T. Realmuto was then hit with a pitch and it felt like before you could blink the bases were loaded with no outs. Silvino Bracho came into an impossible situation to face Trea Turner and then this happened [VIDEO].

Many rightfully referred to it as one of the greatest games in World Baseball Classic history, at least before Mexico entered the chat.

What can I say about the Mexican team? They lost to Colombia in their first game in the tournament, and as a chicana cheering for Mexico I was a bit devastated thinking all was lost. Then they absolutely posted up for a huge victory against the United States, winning the Phoenix pool and then stunning Puerto Rico in a 5-4 come-from-behind victory. For a brief shining moment, Mexico looked poised to upset Japan in the semifinals on the heroics of Randy Arozarena, who petitioned to play for Mexico, which he now considers his home after leaving Cuba:

Arozarena did EVERYTHING in the World Baseball Classic, including making the all-tournament team by batting .607 for the tournament (that batting average is not a typo):

And honestly, I don’t even know what he’s doing here after these catches, but I want more of it in every baseball game I ever watch, ever [VIDEO].

You would be forgiven for believing nothing could top the drama of the Mexico vs. Japan game (except maybe the USA v. Venezuela, Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico, and Mexico vs. Puerto Rico matchups that came days before) and then Kyle Schwarber hit this line drive to the upper deck off his former Cubs teammate Yu Darvish to bring the USA to within one run of Japan in the eighth inning [VIDEO].

That set up a top of the ninth for the ages. Shohei Ohtani, the otherworldly two-way player who reached base on an infield single between jaunts back and forth to the bullpen to warm up for the ninth, would attempt to close out the game against the 2022 batting champion, Jeff McNeil and two former Most Valuable Players in Mookie Betts, before facing his Angels teammate, and only possible rival for greatest baseball player on the planet, Mike Trout. This match-up is the stuff of Hollywood movies and I’ll let it speak for itself [VIDEO].

But even with all of the drama I just showed you (I mean, come on, it really feels like we were all spoiled the last couple of weeks by having the greatest World Baseball Classic game every day) combined with the audience numbers and player reaction Searle demonstrated in her Baseball Prospectus piece, MLB seems rigidly attached to baseball as the bastion of suburban America, where, frankly, that energy has never existed.

To be clear, if I could figure out a way to expand MLB to Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei as well, I think those areas are equally passionate about baseball and would be incredible expansion markets. However, in writing this piece it seemed like 12 plus hour flights posed a barrier that eight hour flights did not. I am totally here for a world where someone works out those travel logistics (or invents faster travel) and comes up with a truly World Series in the future, but it was beyond my ability to imagine at this moment.

But expanding to San Juan and Mexico City is realistic, and should be a priority of any league that wants to grow the game. Baseball doesn’t need Nashville or Portland and Nashville and Portland don’t need baseball (no offense to either of those excellent cities). Expand MLB to San Juan and Mexico City. Go where the fans are bringing instruments into the games and dancing in the concourses already. Force a rigid, conservative sport to embrace more of the vibe that Arozarena brings to the ballpark. Stop focusing on cable deals, luxury box revenue, and development money and focus instead on the energy in the street and with the fans. The future of baseball is béisbol, not pitch clocks.