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On the World Baseball Classic, what it is, and what it could be

Reflecting on the ceiling for the international baseball tournament.

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-Final-USA at Puerto Rico Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As I was piecing together my thoughts for this article, I was curious about something. I wanted to know what people thought. Using a Twitter platform with a larger reach than my own, I was able to pose the question:

250 responses ain’t anything conclusive, but it ain’t nothing either. 70 percent of these people who follow the South Side Sox twitter account — presumably an at least somewhat representational slice of general baseball fandom — have at least some level of interest in the World Baseball Classic, with a roughly even split between excited, interested, and uninterested.

It’s impossible to say how that same question might have fared in 2017, or 2013, or 2009, or 2006. What we do know is that attendance and TV ratings have risen with each subsequent edition of the Classic since its inauguration. It’s easy to imagine the trend continuing this year. 2017 feels like eons ago in baseball terms, but any penalty the WBC may suffer from falling out of thought for a half-decade ought to be well-compensated for by the fact that awareness of non-MLB baseball is as high in the United States as it’s ever been. Clips from the Caribbean winter leagues populate my social media feeds regularly. 20 years ago, Rōki Sasaki’s bid for back-to-back perfect games might have been apocryphal for most American fans, but we got to witness it via highlights almost in real time.

I want the World Baseball Classic to grow, even if it makes me just a touch uneasy. The line between national pride and toxic nationalism can be fine, and adding fandom (often toxic itself) to the mix can be a dangerous combination. International soccer is infamous for its hooliganism, of course. Thinking back to 2017, Ian Kinsler’s professed desire that kids “appreciate the way [the USA] plays as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays” is a reminder of how all too easy it is for international competitiveness to become a crutch for reinforcing the pillars of racism and neocolonialism that are constantly sucking the joy out of baseball — and impeding its growth.

Nationalism ain’t great, but this world is what we got, and at the end of the day, international sports are a lot of fun. I got a taste of it at the 2017 WBC, when I was lucky enough to be at Dodger Stadium for the USA’s dramatic 2-1 semifinal win over Japan en route to their first international title. It was a thrilling game that featured six shutdown innings from erstwhile postee Tomoyuki Sugano — who was then relieved by current New York Met Kodai Senga — and a Japanese lineup that included Nori Aoki, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Shogo Akiyami, and Seiya Suzuki, all of whom save Aoki I was encountering for the first time. The game was far from exhibition quality, and though the crowd was sparse on a chilly and rainy afternoon, the people were tense and engaged, and quite electric when Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen drove in the only two American runs of the game.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games in my life, including playoff wins and perfect games. The WBC was a top-five baseball-watching experience. It makes me believe it has opportunity to occupy more space than a niche. Nothing but the World Cup can be the World Cup, but baseball is a sport for the world in the vein of soccer much more than American football or hockey. Basketball may be getting there, but its non-American presence still has just a fraction of the century-long (and more) inroads that baseball has made in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and East Asia. Baseball is indelibly written into the historical fabric of countries on three continents in a way that perhaps only soccer can surpass. A game that could feasibly draws millions of eyes each in the United States, Venezuela, and South Korea might be more special than we’re giving it credit for right now.

We spend a lot of time fretting about the state of baseball and its seeming decline in the USA. MLB and the American baseball infrastructure is held hostage by a class of oblivious white men much more inclined to agree with Kinsler than push back, and participation and access to the sport is being limited more than ever as a result. Though the WBC is partially run by MLB, the international stage is a place where the game can at the very least be played free from the sanctimony of the MLB season and all the written and unwritten rules therein. It probably deserves more of our attention if we’re serious about breaking the hold that the “unwritten rules” brigade has on American baseball.

Perhaps the 2023 WBC will be the first step towards becoming a major institution in the sports world. Like I said, the internet and social media have spurred a surge of interest in non-MLB baseball since the last tournament, and perhaps an increased awareness of non-MLBers playing for their national teams will have a ripple effect of interest in the teams and leagues their countrymen are a part of. If it leads to fewer people thinking baseball starts and stops with MLB, it’ll be for the better. The event doesn’t have to be meaningless just because it can’t reach the World Cup’s level of competitive and financial clout.

It might also be a flop. I know that I’ll be watching either way, and I’m looking forward to being exposed to players and people that I never would have otherwise encountered. And I’m looking forward to where those encounters take me, too. Whether it succeeds or not, let’s get excited. We spend enough time fretting about baseball’s impending doom. We shouldn’t forget to pause for things that might be worth uplifting, if the opportunity is there.