Each spring, baseball fans can look forward to the unofficial return to baseball that is spring training as they eagerly await Opening Day. But every four years, there is an entirely different brand of baseball going on. Some people will say it’s just exhibition, but the World Baseball Classic’s intensity and competitiveness is a drastic contrast to the more easygoing nature of spring training games.
Even though the WBC has its critics, I personally think it’s a great thing for everyone involved. It showcases the best players in the world and allows fans a chance to see the game from all over the globe, where they can get a look at international stadiums and unique local fan traditions. It’s impossible to watch a game from South Korea or Japan and not feel the energy of the ballpark even from your couch at home. Whether it’s dancing or hyping up the crowd from atop the dugout in South Korea or the emphatic celebrations of the Dominican players, the WBC has a different level of energy from even MLB regular season games. Plus, there’s nothing quite like waking up at five in the morning and tuning in to a baseball game.
Although baseball will be returning to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the setup is far from ideal. The Olympics are played in conjunction with the MLB season, so there’s no reasonable way that MLB players would be able to participate. It only makes sense that one of the most widespread sports in the world has a competition where the very best players each country has to offer can go head to head. That’s what the World Baseball Classic provides.
As a baseball fan, the first week of spring training is great due to the thrill of being able to finally watch baseball again. But the middle weeks of spring baseball tend to lose some appeal, so the WBC comes at a perfect time for fans that are eager to watch some real competitive action with a lot at stake. And if you don’t think it’s competitive, then you haven’t watched it. Many of the players have explained how they take great pride in putting on the uniforms of their countries and just how much it means to them.
Bruce Chen, who pitched 17 seasons in the major leagues, is competing for Team China. Chen also competed for Panama, his home country, in two previous WBC’s, but now he’ll be playing for his country of ancestry. For Chen, putting on the Chinese uniform has a special meaning. “I can only imagine how proud my grandparents would be if they were still alive, to see me give something back to the country”, he explains.
While many top players have declined to suit up for the WBC, the same cannot be said for the Dominican Republic. The Dominican lineup is so rife with major league superstars that it’s hard to think of any stars who aren’t participating. After the team’s first round win versus Canada, Jose Bautista said, “It was great energy from our fans, from our people. When you play for your country, it cannot be compared to many things.”
Some observers have been critical of the WBC for a variety of reasons, including the risk of players suffering injuries or being overworked too early in the spring, as well as the various rule changes. However, the number of benefits can easily be forgotten. For some players, the tournament provides an opportunity to improve their standing within their own organizations. A great showing in the tournament could definitely turn some heads, especially since it is in highly competitive competition. Furthermore, the WBC could very well serve as a valuable audition for players like Justin Morneau, Jason Marquis, and Sam Fuld, all of whom are free agents looking for a place to play in 2017. Also, there’s something pretty unique about seeing former stars like Canada’s Eric Gagne make a comeback to compete against today’s brightest talent.
Players are not the only ones who are using the WBC as a showcase. The tournament can serve as a way to drum up interest in the sport for an entire nation. For global baseball powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic, and Japan, that might not be the case. But for countries with a much shorter track record in baseball, such as China, Italy, and Israel, the Classic can be hugely significant in growing the game nationwide.
Israel, which was one of four nations that had to play in the qualifying tournament to earn a spot, entered the tournament as heavy underdogs in Pool A. Yet, they have shocked the world by going undefeated in the first round, and have already defeated Cuba in the second round. One of the teams they beat to get there, South Korea, is considered one of the top baseball countries in the world, so many were stunned to see a much less experienced baseball nation take them down. That’s part of the beauty of the WBC. If South Korea and Israel played a seven game series, South Korea would likely win most of the time. But when you’re playing just one single game against each of your three pool opponents, anything is possible. For a short tournament like this, it’s thrilling and adds to the competitive nature. We’ve already seen a number of matchups in which teams consisting mostly of minor league and foreign talent have held their own against MLB All-Star quality rosters.
It’s understandable why some fans have been resistant to the idea of the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not too late to catch up on the action with eight teams still alive in the tournament. During a time of year when fans are typically counting down the days to the regular season, the WBC serves as baseball’s version of March Madness. It might not hold the weight of the World Series, but there’s no question that the energy and passion put forth by both the players and fans across the globe is unrivaled.