Not watching the WBC? You're missing out
It happens every four years. The World Baseball Classic. And I’m not just talking about the tournament. I’m talking about the wave of negativity that crashes in and does everything it can to spoil the party. If there is one defining characteristic of baseball’s version of the World Cup, it’s the fact that it is welcomed more by criticism than by fanfare.
In early March, the headlines harped on the fact that American superstars such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were not taking part. When New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard was asked why he wasn’t playing, he answered, “Ain’t nobody make it to the Hall of Fame and win the World Series playing in the W.B.C.” With comments like that, it’s no wonder that America’s passion for international competition is questioned.
But while the bashers are having a heyday, I have to wonder, are these same people actually watching the games? Have they noticed that aside from front-line starters, team USA’s lineup is the equivalent of an All-Star team? Did they bother with the early rounds of the tournament - marked by electric crowds in Tokyo, Mexico, and even a sellout for the US vs. Dominican Republic game in Miami? Last night in San Diego, over 32,000 boisterous fans watched Puerto Rico advance to the finals in yet another thriller. It turned out that March Madness wasn’t on CBS, it was actually airing on the MLB network. The fact is, if you’re not watching, you’re missing out.
If you were more interested in meaningless spring training games, you might have missed that epic ninth inning comeback by Italy against Mexico. If you were more concerned with the latest free agent signings or the MLB injury report, you might have missed an inspired first round performance by Israel, going 3-0 in Pool A. And if you went to bed early, passing up the rare opportunity to watch late-night baseball, you probably haven’t seen the Netherlands and their fantastic combination of a defense and offensive power. Yes that’s right, the Dutch just might win the whole thing.
For all its imperfections, perhaps the biggest problem is not with the WBC, but with us.
There’s no doubt as long as the WBC continues, people will love to pick it apart. It’s too early for competitive baseball, they will say. They will argue that’s it’s an event contrived by MLB for marketing purposes and nothing more. And if the US team is upstaged again by the passion of tiny nations, American sports fans will blow it off, downplaying the significance of the moment.
For all its imperfections, perhaps the biggest problem is not with the WBC, but with us. Our inward looking world view is painfully exposed by our failure to embrace the true spirit of the event. There are glimmers of hope - chants of USA as the team mounts late inning rallies and guys like Hosmer and Jones do everything they can to ignite some kind of passion. But as we get into the late rounds of the event, the bright colors of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the DR have outshined the Stars and Stripes once again.
But listen up, America. It’s not over yet. There’s still a chance to jump on the bandwagon. Tonight’s match-up between the US and the Dominican is a winner-take-all showdown. This game is not a hard sell. It’s a contest between two star-studded lineups and a rematch of one of the great games of the tournament so far. And I can personally guarantee that Petco Park will be louder tonight than for any Padre game this season.
But this is more than just a test for Team USA. It’s a test for the American baseball fan. It’s a question about what we value in sports, and why we care to begin with. As the host country, how well do we represent the game? If the US wins, will you follow them to Los Angeles? If they lose, will you blow off the WBC as a meaningless exhibition? And tonight, as the cool marine air settles in over San Diego, will you be watching?