I know it’s all too easy to make fun of the entire thing. At times, it can seem to sit in a realm somewhere between an unnecessary meaningless prelude to the genuine article, and a detrimental uprooting of the normal preparation process of the spring.
But I really do love the World Baseball Classic.
Sure, sure, I know the arguments against it. It consists of hastily composed teams full of unprepared players who are fresh off four months of the offseason. A huge chunk of the big stars don’t participate, which sometimes turns it into the equivalent of the 14th inning of the All-Star Game. And the stringent pitch count rules (both written and unwritten, the latter communicated via stern glares and grumbles from a pitcher’s real manager) clearly make the WBC less of an actual competitive tournament and more of a giant exhibition.
There’s nothing wrong with that. None of it matters.
A baseball tournament doesn’t need to have competitive meaning to be meaningful. The WBC isn’t designed to crown the best baseball country in the world. The WBC’s value lies in its ability to foster the growth of international baseball like no other event can.
Two months ago, Jon Paul Morosi wrote an article decrying athletes who turned down an invite to the WBC. Morosi wrote, “…it seems several American stars see the WBC as a matter of convenience rather than an obligation to country and sport,” continuing, “the lame excuse is there in case we need it: Oh, no one cares about the tournament because we don’t send all of our best players.” Morosi doubled down on his argument two months later, leading off a story with “No more excuses. No more rationalizations. If the United States still wants to consider itself the preeminent baseball country on the globe, then Team USA will win the World Baseball Classic.”
Obviously, Morosi is off the mark here. The United States is the home to the strongest baseball leagues in existence, and no three-week quadrennial tournament will change that. But it’s not just that he’s wrong, it’s that his entire premise is built upon a foundation that’s angled in the wrong direction. Morosi’s criticizers, who often point at the WBC’s lack of value as a competitive event as an excuse to dismiss the tournament outright, are hardly more correct.
Both sides are anchored to the idea that the WBC’s competitiveness is tied to its relevance. It’s not. The biggest draw that the World Baseball Classic has to offer is its capacity to expand baseball’s role as an international game. In a press release that was sent out on Tuesday, MLB announced that the game between Japan and Chinese Taipei last Friday was the highest rated television program in Taiwanese cable history. Japan’s game against the Netherlands was the most watched Japanese sports event in 12 months. That rating even beat the TV viewership of the Japan Series, the Japanese equivalent of the World Series.
People are watching overseas. This extends to countries not typically known as baseball powerhouses, such as Italy and the Netherlands. There are professional baseball leagues in Europe (such as the Italian Baseball League and the delightfully named Honkbal Hoofdklasse, to stay with the aforementioned duo), but they could use greater exposure and a larger local audience. With the demise of Olympic baseball after 2008, baseball needs an international event to give small international leagues a spark. This is that event.
The WBC’s main focus isn’t those of us who reside in the United States or Canada. We get 162 games of quality baseball every year, multiplied by 30 teams, in addition to three rounds of quality playoffs. Frankly, we’re spoiled. The WBC is meant for countries around the globe, who don’t always get the chance to see hometown representatives play on the same field as the best of the best. Pointing at the lack of press the WBC gets on its home turf completely misses the point.
The World Baseball Classic is a show on a grand scale for the international audience that baseball has. It’s a fun tournament that brings back the luster in baseball exhibitions, something the All-Star Game has lacked in recent years. And most of all, it performs a vitally important role that the sport wouldn’t otherwise have—spreading the game to the world. The WBC isn’t an international version of the All-Star Game. It’s baseball’s World Cup.
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