MIAMI – For some reason, the World Baseball Classic perpetually finds itself fighting against what it isn’t. It isn’t the gathering of all the best players in the world. It isn’t at an ideal time of year. It isn’t on a marquee television network. It isn’t beloved by the executives with tangible sway over players’ decisions to participate. It isn’t this. It isn’t that. It isn’t, it isn’t, it isn’t.
Pause the narrative for a second. And let’s consider what it is.
The World Baseball Classic is exciting. The World Baseball Classic is dramatic. The World Baseball Classic is important to those who do choose to play. The World Baseball Classic is capable of conjuring up atmospheres of which regular-season games couldn’t dream and to which postseason games aspire. The World Baseball Classic is a canvas for perhaps the sport’s greatest quality – an ability of teams with lesser talent not only to compete but actually beat superior ones – to manifest itself via Cinderellas worthy of the month in which it’s played. The World Baseball Classic is representative of the sport’s evolution from America’s pastime to one shared by enough of the world that national pride matters. Above all, the World Baseball Classic is fun, and for a game with a rep as staid and stilted, growing something this good – even if it is more Astroturf than grassroots – is a victory in and of itself.
Sunday marked the end of the WBC’s first round, and calling it anything less than a rousing success would short-shrift its worldwide bona fides. After a week of upsets, comebacks, passion, highlights – of the Dominican Republic turning Miami into a party, Israel turning Asia into its playground and the other 14 teams turning the fourth incarnation of the tournament into a legitimate event – the quibbles felt petty. It typically takes 10 months into a year to witness baseball at this level. Getting a megadose in the third month is downright indulgent.
It doesn’t take someone in love with the sport to recognize it as such, either, because the WBC packs a pair of ingredients that speak to fans of all kinds: country and ambiance. Nowhere was that better represented than here, where the never-ending party that is Dominican Republic baseball did a tidy job of spoiling everything that followed. Watching the D.R.’s star-studded roster, trailed by its merry band of instruments, revelry and unrelenting stamina, wasn’t exactly a revelation since Dominican baseball never has hidden what it is. More than anything, it was a reminder of what baseball can be – and what the WBC can be.
“This is the Olympics for us,” said Manny Machado, the Dominican star who won the MVP award for the Miami pool as the D.R. squeaked into extra innings against Colombia before a seven-run 11th inning locked down a 10-3 victory and 11th consecutive WBC win. “Obviously we don’t get to play in the Olympics, but for baseball players this is do or die. We’re playing for what’s across our chests.”
Around the world, they kept saying that this week. The team representing Israel, made up almost exclusively of Americans with Jewish ancestry, romped undefeated through the first round and followed by upsetting Cuba in its second-round debut. Puerto Rico, the runners-up to the D.R. in 2013, returned with an even more loaded squad, swept the Mexico pool and dedicated it to Boricuas back home, in the United States, everywhere. And while so much of the focus was trained on those back in spring camps – Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and Kris Bryant and Max Scherzer and Mookie Betts and, really, this could go on for another two dozen names – the Americans who did come here understood better than anyone not what the WBC is or isn’t but what it’s capable of being in the United States.
Asking that question isn’t negative. It’s an imperative. Major League Baseball devotes enough resources to the WBC that it is, at any time, vulnerable to disappearing. Give commissioner Rob Manfred this: He might be the WBC’s biggest fan. (Or second anyway.) He has said so long as he is commissioner in 2021, the WBC will be held. If the Americans do bomb out before reaching the semifinals in Los Angeles, though, it again will ignite the issue of whether enough interest here exists to make the tournament a worthwhile endeavor.
That’s a particularly jingoistic lens through which to view the WBC, especially seeing as the tournament is every bit as much other countries’ as the United States’. Were the WBC to end, Machado said, he would be “very disappointed. So far it’s been unbelievable. I would definitely sign up for it again. It’s going to be a disappointment if they don’t do it. I think they need to try everything possible to get it going and keep it there. This is a great experience not just for us as players but for all of MLB and all of baseball all over the world.”
Here’s the rub: Over the past four days, Machado had played in front of two sellout crowds that were majority Dominican. He had seen the D.R. turn Marlins Park into a road game for Team USA. He experienced the apex of the tournament. Which is not to say players from the United States whose 8-0 victory Sunday against Canada in front of a sparse crowd that vacillated between mildly engaged and comatose was some sort of nadir. It just illustrated the difference in interest levels between the countries and begged for an answer.
— MLB (@MLB) March 13, 2017
Like the eternal question that vexes MLB – how does the league better market its players in 2017? – there is no tidy solution for this. The most obvious, after three tournaments without an appearance beyond the second round, is to play better.
“If we just keep doing our thing, I think fans will understand that,” said third baseman Nolan Arenado, the U.S. cleanup hitter. “But we’ve got to win. Dominican Republic won it last [tournament], and they haven’t lost yet … the last couple times. So it’s easy to be a fan for them. If we keep playing our game and keep doing our thing, I think we’re going to start drawing some crowds.”
Interest can be measured in plenty of ways. There is TV ratings, which aren’t likely to spike significantly so long as the games are all on MLB Network. There is crowd size, which, with baseball becoming a far more parochial game over the past quarter century, is a tough sell without the right countries. There is the blessing of teams, another difficult hurdle, with nine-figure contracts and jobs always at stake and World Series to be won and the unknown of the WBC not just a potential roadblock but an easy scapegoat.
The ultimate sign of acceptance – the one that almost certainly would preclude the other factors – is widespread participation. The WBC is great without all of the sport’s bold names dotting rosters. Their involvement, though, would force teams that kowtow to their stars to comply, and it would, as much as baseball can these days, lend the games more of a must-watch air, and, presumably, it would bring people who love the game to the stadium, because the prospect of a genuine All-Star Game where players actually care who wins is tantalizing.
In the meantime, it’s edifying to hear Nolan Arenado say: “This is by far the best moment in my career. There’s nothing better than playing in this.” And to hear Dominican slugger Nelson Cruz say: “This is the real world series.” And to get text messages from players lamenting that they weren’t here to play in what looked from afar like a distilled version of the game they love.
No doubt, the WBC has its flaws. U.S. manager Jim Leyland is starting Seattle’s Drew Smyly in the first game of the second round, over better options like Chris Archer, because it’s the only way the Mariners would let him participate. The pitch limit on starters in the first round can be too restrictive (though the bullpen heaviness of these early games did quite a good job of mimicking the quick-hook October of last year). The game’s talent concentration in a couple handfuls of countries is capable of creating mismatches.
Scheduling the WBC in July, though, in the middle of playoff races, almost certainly would lessen the participation. And doing it after the World Series, even in a dome, is a non-starter. That’s the thing about the WBC: The more one nitpicks at what it isn’t, the likelier one is to realize it’s pretty great just the way it is.