As with the two previous editions in 2006 and 2009, this year’s tournament has been a triumph; a wonderful complement to the normal baseball season.
And it isn’t just the juxtaposition with the carefree exhibition Spring Training games that makes the WBC contests so enthralling at this time of the year.
There’s a real sense that the WBC is something different. MLB is a fantastic competition, but this international event reminds us all that not everything baseball-related has to follow the tried-and-tested ‘MLB way’.
The crowds in Japan and Taiwan produced a unique atmosphere notably different to what we witness in games Stateside, where the inspiration-less Yankee Stadium ‘Bleacher Creature’ Roll Call somehow passes as the epitome of fan interaction. The Japanese style of having unique songs for every player is much more in line with the European sports fan experience, albeit presumably the Japanese version being a bit more polite.
Similarly the exuberant celebrations of the Dominican Republic team have led to a certain amount of ‘tut-tutting’ from the MLB traditionalists. It might be reasonable to raise an eyebrow at such behaviour when it comes in a regular season MLB game – where 1 game of 162 normally doesn’t matter so much – however the WBC is an event that comes around only once every four years. It’s a rare chance for these players to represent their country and condemning them for getting a bit overexcited at times is wrong. Anyone that believes their actions are in any way ‘showing up their opponent’ is being pathetically precious.
One of the great things about the WBC is that it brings together different baseball cultures and they should be embraced, not curtailed.
Similarly, the short format structure to the WBC is something different to the normal MLB regular season, and even most of the postseason.
Anything can happen in a tournament containing relatively few games and that’s something which doesn’t fit neatly into the world of advanced statistical analysis that demands significant sample sizes and a measured focus on what is meaningful rather than mere chance. It’s a fascinating area of the baseball landscape, a real treasure trove that anyone who thinks about the game should delve into with gusto. However, it shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the sheer fun of a random ballgame.
Nelson Figueroa’s six shut-out innings for Puerto Rico that helped to knock out the U.S. are not indicative of his future projected performances, but it was brilliant to watch regardless, just like Bradford City’s incredible run to the League Cup final was enjoyable precisely because it was completely against the odds.
Cup upsets are a treasured part of football history and cup competitions are prized because they give teams something to dream about even if their league campaign isn’t going to plan. Reading Anthony Rizzo’s gushing comments about his experience with Italy brought to mind how the WBC can act in a similar way for some players.
The Chicago Cubs may surprise us all with a playoff run this year, but the odds are Rizzo and his teammates will be playing out the string in September. His performances with the Cubs are what he gets paid for and every MLB game is important to those playing in them, but it was clear that Rizzo relished the opportunity to play in such an event:
“That’s something I wouldn’t be able to get here, even in the regular season,” Rizzo said of the intensity of elimination games. “[During the season], if you win or lose a game in the later innings, you know you can still play tomorrow. This is kind of like a playoff atmosphere — you lose, you’re done”.
Much has been made about whether the U.S. cares about the WBC and indeed whether this matters or not. Fans of most North American sports have limited exposure to international competition and it is far from being an engrained part of the sporting pyramid as we are used to in the U.K.
MLB has been the be-all and end-all for over a century for most baseball fans in the States and three WBC’s couldn’t possibly turn that on its head. A fan’s primary loyalty is normally to their chosen team – most football fans would trade an England triumph, not likely I know, for some silverware for their club – and as there’s no obvious time to play the WBC outside of Spring Training, we have to accept that a fan would sooner their star player rest a slight injury to prepare for the season ahead rather than risk playing in the WBC.
The WBC is mainly designed to expand the appeal of baseball to emerging baseball nations, so a lukewarm reception from fans in the States shouldn’t be too problematic (I’ve read comments from plenty of Americans who have loved the tournament, so the ‘U.S. doesn’t care’ line is overblown in any case). Where it could have a negative effect is on the standing of the event among potential participants and here it all comes down to the players being advocates for the tournament.
So long as young players like Rizzo are greatly enjoying the event, and All-Stars like Brandon Phillips are describing it as “the highlight of my career”, the WBC will continue to be a great spectacle and, in time, will only grow in importance among players and fans alike.