You might not have been paying too much attention to it in the midst of the glorious chaos of March Madness or the embodiment of childhood nostalgia that is spring training, but the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic has been going on, and it’s actually been pretty great.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the WBC (and there’s a good chance that you are), it’s a 16-team tournament that’s designed to be baseball’s equivalent of the World Cup, pitting the world’s most baseball-crazy countries against each other. The inaugural tournament was played in 2006, and after having been held in 2009 and 2013, is now planned to run every four years.
It’s not the first major international baseball tournament but unlike the now-defunct Baseball World Cup and Olympic baseball, the WBC actually features stars from MLB representing their countries. This year’s festivities featured big names like Manny Machado, Buster Posey, Carlos Correa, Felix Hernandez, Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Jones and Francisco Lindor.
Being the country that invented the sport, you might think that the good old US of A has a history of success at the World Baseball Classic, but just like our international math and science tests, we’ve actually been a lot more mediocre than you might think. In fact, the USA’s record going into 2017’s tournament was a mere 10–10 and they had failed to even once qualify for the final round. That all changed this year as the Americans went 4-2 in the qualifying rounds before downing perennial favorite Japan 2-1 in the semifinals.
The single-elimination championship game, held in Dodger Stadium on March 22, found the United States facing off against its baseball-mad territory Puerto Rico in a battle of North American ballplayer supremacy. It was a showdown that didn’t disappoint.
Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays’ diminutive flamethrowing wormburner of a starting pitcher, took the mound for the US. Though the 25-year-old Stroman has so far failed to live up to his reputation as a staff ace in the big leagues, he looked like a true stud in the WBC, firing six no-hit innings before giving up a double to Giants left fielder Angel Pagan.
Stroman was lifted by manager Jim Leyland after the hit (the WBC institutes rules limiting pitch count, probably in part so as to appease concerned major league owners) but Sam Dyson, Pat Neshek and David Robertson brought the game home scoreless and held Puerto Rico to just two more base hits. In the end, the Americans didn’t even need such dominant pitching, putting up an eight spot of their own.
Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler was the star, plating the game’s go-ahead runs with a two-run bomb to left-center. Near-capacity Dodgers Stadium was delirious afterwards as fans of both teams serenaded their boys with a pure joy and fervor that evoked a Little League game, or perhaps more accurately for the venue, an international soccer match. The whole thing was about as fun as you could get out of an exhibition baseball game in March.
That may sound a bit facetious, but it’s no small thing for this game — and this year’s tournament as a whole — to feel legitimately important and exciting.
This was the first time where it seemed like the World Baseball Classic was a true competition between the best teams in the world, and even if that’s not strictly speaking true (many of MLB’s brightest stars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw stayed home for spring training, something they never would have done if the WBC actually had as much prestige as the World Cup), the record attendance for the 2017 tourney showed that fans from across the world are starting to come around.
Baseball will never match the international popularity of soccer, and it even has a long way to go match the likes of basketball or cricket, but through events like these it stands to expand to all corners of the globe. Everyone knows of the baseball hotbeds in the Caribbean and east Asia, but what about in the Netherlands or Israel, both of which made a big splash in the WBC? This is a great thing! Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it’s about time the rest of the world got to share it.