The next three weeks of spring baseball will be different than it is in most years. Instead of the usual mixture of spring warm-up games scattered through Florida and Arizona, the World Baseball Classic takes the sport out of team allegiance and wraps some of the best players in the world in their flags instead. Over the next three weeks, games will start in Taiwan and Japan and culminate in a winner-takes-all championship in San Francisco. What will be revealed is that baseball has a very strong presence around the world, as well as the fact that Major League Baseball is far from the only place that good baseball is being played.
Sixteen teams will take to the field for this year’s Classic, with many hailing from places that aren’t associated usually with baseball. The competitors in this third installment includes Australia, Brazil, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela, Canada and finally, the United States.
Since 2008, when baseball was removed from the Summer Olympic Games, the WBC has been the only chance to truly see players divided up by national allegiance. MLB has been heavily involved in the organization of the tournament, but the participants come from all over the world, ranging from international professionals to MLB minor leaguers and collegiate players. This is an expectedly diverse gathering of players, and results of this have been varied. Some countries send the very best of their best, while others have featured talented rosters but nothing that would be up to the level of a true “Dream Team.”
The general assumption would be that the United States, Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico would be the dominant forces in the game, as they populate the MLB with the most talent. However, it has been Japan that has won both WBC tournaments thus far. And while there has been some contention that many countries’ best players haven’t gone (especially in the case of the United States), there’s no reason to degrade the quality of the wins the Japanese have pulled down; they’re legit and the victories have proved to be a springboard to send more Japanese players to the MLB. Nobody had heard of Daisuke Matsuzaka before 2006, but after posting a WBC-best 3 wins and 13 perfect innings, everybody heard about the $51 million the Boston Red Sox put up just to speak with him after he won the tournament’s MVP, an honor he also repeated with in Japan’s 2009 victory.
In the previous two tournaments, Japan sent the best Japanese players alive, and generally that’s what the majority of participants do. But the argument has been made that until the United States does, the WBC will still never live up to its full potential. However, the U.S. still feels that baseball belongs to them; it’s the national pastime and it originated here. This year’s WBC could prove to be a turning point, because a USA Baseball senior team roster that will send David Wright, Ryan Braun, Mark Teixeira and R.A. Dickey is one that has strong potential to advance the home of baseball to its first finals in the brief history of the event.
For a sport that has struggled with relevancy and legitimacy on a local level in the U.S., the WBC is refreshing in a way. There’s nothing that wakes up the internal competitor in an athlete like representing his or her country. For teams like the United States, Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the push to prove they are the best ballplayers in the world is major, and this is the chance to prove it heads up against each other. On the other hand, there are the underdogs who want their shot, teams like the Netherlands, who pulled off the surprise victory of the ’09 WBC when they knocked the MLB-heavy Dominican squad from the tournament … with only two players with MLB experience in their lineup. There’s a ton of different dynamics coming to head this month, and the time is now for the game to take the lead over the league it comes from.