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.
On this date sixteen years ago, the Mariners signed Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year major league contract. It was a historic move at the time, because the then 27-year old outfielder was the first position player signed by an MLB team from Japan. Ichiro’s legacy will forever be much more than that, as his quick rise to international superstardom would pave the way for an influx of talented players from Japan coming to the United States.
Although there had been some notable Japanese players in the majors before him, including Hideo Nomo and Mariners teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki, all had been pitchers. Ichiro brought a different kind of flair to the game and meteorically rose to become one of the best players in the majors, not unlike Nomo did in 1995. But Ichiro was an everyday player, which some would argue put him in the spotlight even more. It didn’t take long for his fame to spread, instantly becoming one of the game’s most beloved players in the United States, and possibly the most widely recognized in the world. He was playing for a Mariners team that would go on to tie a major league record for wins that year, with a lot of that success owed to Ichiro himself. Ichiro became just the second player to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, matching the feat achieved by Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975. Three years later, he would break George Sisler’s long standing record for most hits in a single season.
You might remember that Ichiro set a couple more important milestones last season. On June 15th, he collected his 2,979th MLB hit, which combined with the 1,278 hits he accumulated in Japan, placed him one ahead of Pete Rose’s MLB total. While you can debate the validity of the record, it is an impressive feat nonetheless. Regardless, Ichiro may very well be the better all-around player of the two.
Then on August 7th, he collected his 3,000th big league hit in Colorado, solidifying his place in history as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. He is the only player in major league history to record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, which he accomplished in his first 10 MLB seasons (2001-2010). Throughout his career, Ichiro has also been an outstanding contributor on the baserunning and defensive sides of the game as well. He ranks 36th all-time with 508 stolen bases, while sustaining an 81% success rate. His .313 batting average is impressive on its own, but what’s remarkable is when you consider that half of his major league career has been past the age of 35. We can only guess how much better his MLB numbers would look had he started in his early 20s.
Ichiro’s a surefire Hall of Famer but, as mentioned earlier, his impact stretches far beyond his numbers. It’s an obvious challenge to be one of the first few players from your country to play in the major leagues. A different style of play and often a language barrier are some of the chief obstacles. Ichiro’s success has opened the door for many others from Japan and other Asian countries to give the major leagues a try, and many have since succeeded. Teams saw his talent and realized how great the talent pool was in Japan. In addition, Ichiro’s fame and popularity has as much to do with his personality as his baseball ability. While always a flashy player, there is a unique humbleness about the way he has always gone about his business and a deep respect for the game of baseball he possesses.
Never one to boast about his accomplishments, when Ichiro was offered the number 51 by the Mariners upon signing, he initially was reluctant to take Randy Johnson’s old number. He then made a promise to Johnson that he would not bring shame to it. It’s clear now that there is nothing to be ashamed of.