WBC provides masterful, exciting baseball on the world stage

Tuesday night marked the epic conclusion to the World Baseball Classic. It has been a tournament to remember. 20 countries duking it out in a World Cup–style “pool play into single-elimination” contest has come down to a rematch between the two most established baseball titans: America and Japan. But this matchup was far from a sure thing.

This week alone, we have been treated to not one but two nail-biting, back-and-forth contests: Team USA’s triumphant quarterfinals victory over Venezuela last Friday, and Japan’s exhilarating walk-off win against Mexico just last night to clinch a spot in the championship.

From Great Britain and the Czech Republic securing their first ever WBC wins, to Puerto Rico throwing a perfect game in its victory over Israel (yes, I’m aware it’s not the same as an MLB perfect game — let’s enjoy it for what it is!), to Trea Turner’s magnificent go-ahead grand slam to allow the U.S. to advance to the semifinals, the tournament atmosphere has been utterly electric. The single-elimination format combined with the talent of the competitors and the thrill of competing for one’s country has created an urgent dynamic that is seldom paralleled in the standard MLB season.

The World Baseball Classic has occurred four times before, but this time something feels different. For the first time, rather than teams being composed of no-name minor-league players or mediocre big-leaguers searching for a way to make a name for themselves, nearly every team that competed was headlined by some of its most famous homegrown talent. The result has been some of the most unforgettable and dynamic matchups in the history of international baseball.

Admittedly, tournaments of such intensity (especially during the time of year when players are just ramping up for the beginning of the season) will invariably cause a number of injuries as players push themselves to play harder for the goal of bringing glory to their nation. Thus far in the tournament, injuries have claimed Astros second baseman José Altuve, who suffered a fractured thumb after being hit by a pitch, and star Mets closing pitcher Edwin Diaz, who will miss the entire 2023 season after tearing his patellar tendon in a freak accident while celebrating with his Puerto Rican teammates after completing an upset against the Dominican Republic. Diaz had just signed a new five-year contract worth $102 million with the New York Mets in the offseason.

Predictably, such injuries have prompted negative reactions online from fans who perceive the WBC to be an unnecessary distraction to the “real” work of getting MLB teams in shape to contend for the World Series. Led by a few Very Online™ Twitter warriors (most notably the insufferable Keith Olbermann), WBC critics contend that players participating in the tournament are risking potential injury for “meaningless exhibition” games and endangering the stake that their MLB club’s management and fanbase have in their good health.

Leaving aside the crass dismissal of the patriotic sense that compels many athletes to compete for either their country of origin or one to which they have meaningful familial ties, Olbermann and the other naysayers willfully ignore the fact that athletes can and do get injured with similarly disastrous consequences in spring training every year. Just ask the Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, who is out for the season after tearing his ACL back in February.

Additionally, the WBC instituted strict pitch-count limits for pitchers to help ease the minds of MLB clubs reluctant to allow their best arms to compete. This seems like a fair compromise, and a largely effective one, as no pitchers have injured themselves during actual gameplay.

To be sure, there is a non-trivial level of competition in a tournament like this that could produce more injuries than the same two-week stretch of spring-training games. But the value the WBC provides for players, fans, and for the sport of baseball itself makes up for that difference — and then some.

For the players, the proof is in the pudding. When asked about what competing for their nation in the WBC means to them, participating MLB players have consistently indicated that it means as much or more to them than winning the World Series. When asked to recount the emotions of Team USA’s Friday night victory, for example, Trea Turner said it was “the most I’ve ever yelled on a field.” Turner is no stranger to the postseason lights, leading his MLB club to the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons.

Around the world, the international fanbase has demonstrated tremendous investment. For the qualifier game between Korea and Japan, 62 million people watched the game on TV from Japan alone. Well over half of all TV viewership in Puerto Rico tuned in for its qualifier game against the Dominican Republic. With a few exceptions (Cuba vs. The Netherlands played as a day game in Taiwan comes to mind), every game has featured loud and electric crowds that filled the stadium with an energy that matches a game seven of the World Series. Sitting along the first-base line in a section packed with supporters of Team Mexico as their team nearly pulled off an upset of Japan last night in Miami was an unforgettable experience for me.

The 2023 World Baseball Classic should illustrate that international baseball competition is only going to get stronger. While mainstream critics have been predicting the downfall of America’s pastime for decades, the past few weeks have shown not only that it has a bright future abroad, but that the excitement and determination for American players and audiences to win is better than ever.

WBC-haters are entitled to their opinions about the tournament (and even a healthy concern for MLB players to compete responsibly), but they would do well to reconsider their opposition to an event that has done so much to provide masterful, exciting, and patriotic ball games on the world stage.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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