The World Baseball Classic concluded yesterday with the Dominican Republic beating Puerto Rico in a 3-0 game that only punctuated how relatively level the playing field now is between some of the top national teams in the world. A lot will be said about how successful this WBC was in terms of popularity, but where the true growth in popularity counts the most right now is in the countries where the sport is evolving from being a small blip on the local sports and cultural landscape to something more.
Brazil, of course, is my go-to example of that. Even though the Brazilians didn’t have success in the W column in the first round of the WBC, the fact that they hung in tough with Japan and Cuba piqued enough Brazilians’ interests back home to dig just a littler deeper in to what was going on over in Fukuoka. Brazil now has been exposed, to itself as much as to anyone else, as a country with some baseball tradition and a huge potential talent pool into which it could tap. That’s the kind of success I’m sure that wise old man Bud Selig has envisioned.
I feel fortunate to have attended a qualifying game (Brazil vs. Panama in Panama City) and a 2nd round game (Puerto Rico vs USA in Miami) in this WBC, and I can vouch for the passion of the fans at both games. Obviously there were a lot of games played where the attendance numbered only in the hundreds, but I guess that means there’s plenty of room for improvement?
A lot of other good things happened in the 2013 WBC. Here is my top 5, in no particular ranking:
- A team other than Japan won the championship. Don’t get me wrong, I love Team Japan. I admire their dedication to winning the WBC. I admire how their fans back them. Overall, they have dominated the WBC like no other team, they will likely continue to win future WBC’s because their devotion to it is unmatched. Nevertheless, after winning the first two WBC’s, it was time for someone else to win, and it was good that it was another baseball powerhouse like the Dominican Republic. It helped spread the wealth a little bit, which is what baseball and capitalism are all about.
- The USA wasn’t as successful as they were expected to be, but they didn’t totally bomb out either. The fact is, most American baseball fans still aren’t convinced of the WBC, and it’s not entirely their fault. The timing sucks for both American players and fans, they both need time to get warmed up for baseball. I have all kinds of opinions about how to make the WBC more interesting for Americans, but that will come later. As far as what happened this year to Team USA, they pretty much shook out as well as they could, given it’s a short tournament, with single- and double- elimination rounds that don’t allow you to get comfortable with just one team, plus they pretty much played in away game environments in Phoenix and Miami. They still didn’t make it to the semi-finals or finals, but at least they didn’t bow out in the first round either, like Venezuela did.
- The WBC final’s Caribbean flavor means a lot for baseball, but it meant even more for Puerto Rico to be in that mix. Puerto Rico is the birth place of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Robbie Alomar, Pudge Rodriguez and countless other MLB legends. Lately, however, the sport has declined on La Isla due to a combination of factors, especially the inclusion of PR into the MLB draft in the last 10 years and the local winter league barely existing anymore. As a result, Boricuas must have felt like they were getting left behind by their Dominican, Venezuelan, even Dutch Antillean counterparts. Hopefully this run in the WBC helps regain some positive vibration in the local baseball landscape. There are still a lot of challenges to the sport regaining a foothold there, but their 2nd place WBC finish couldn’t have done anything but good.
- The Dominican Republic thoroughly dominated this tournament. Team DR was en fuego the whole way, going 8-0 and showing us why MLB spends way more money farming there than any other country outside of the U.S. From top to bottom, they were the deepest team in the WBC. Their pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, literally owned opposing hitters. Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes finally stepped up and performed to their incredible abilities. Tony Pena really didn’t have to work that hard, because his team came out of the gates with passion from the first game, like they knew the whole time they were destined to win it all. What a contrast from 2009, when they had that top heavy lineup and couldn’t beat the Netherlands, twice. It’s a colossal win for the DR and it will certainly influence future generations of peloteros Dominicanos.
The future of the WBC can be bright, if they don’t screw it up. The safe bet is to leave the current format alone for 2017, but I don’t see MLB doing that. There are talks of holding the second rounds and finals in the middle of summer instead of playing the All-Star game that year. I’d probably be on board with that because at least that means there’s a chance of more superstars playing in the WBC (especially in the case of Team USA). MLB teams naturally have a concern for players’ injuries, so even then you may not see certain guys playing because of that. Still, it would be A LOT more exciting than watching the All-Star Game.
Between now and late 2016 when the WBC qualifying rounds start, it will be interesting to see how much the sport continues to grow in countries like China, Brazil and South Africa, seeing as how those are the real emerging markets for both baseball talent and potential MLB fans. It will also be interesting to see if and when they move some of the later WBC rounds to locations other than in the U.S. and Japan. Of course, stadium facilities are always a consideration in that regard, but I’d like to see more of those rounds played in places that do have existing and even newer stadiums, such as Mexico and the DR (imagine the finals being played in Monterrey, Mexico or Santo Domingo, DR).
In the final analysis, I thought this was a successful and more interesting WBC than the previous two. Maybe because I followed it more closely, or perhaps because many of the games were close and evenly played, but something about this edition of the WBC, in my opinion, has helped it turn the corner a bit. Maybe not yet in the U.S., but someday Americans will start to care about it as long as their team keeps coming up short.