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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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The International Baseball Stage Has Never Been Bigger

  • The World Baseball Classic has evolved into something resembling the World Cup of baseball.
  • Countries throughout the Americas and East Asia can show their incredible wealth of baseball talent.
Javy Baez, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Vinny Pasquantino
USA TODAY Sports, Design: Alex Brooks
On Saturday night, the two biggest producers of baseball star power will take the field.

The U.S., which has the world’s biggest economy and calls baseball its “national pastime,” will play its opening game in the World Baseball Classic against Great Britain. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, a nation with a fraction of the U.S.’s size and financial might, will take on Venezuela.

The WBC, which began anew this week after a six-year break due to the pandemic, offers a heat map of baseball passion and relevance around the globe. A handful of countries, mostly in the Americas, punch above their weight, but nowhere is this more pronounced than the co-favorite to win the tournament, 800 miles off the coast of Florida.

The U.S. has roughly 334 million people; the D.R. has around 11 million. The U.S.’s GDP is $23.3 trillion or around $70,000 per capita; the D.R. has a GDP of $94 billion or around $8500 per capita.

And yet their teams are roughly equivalent in strength.

While the U.S. boasts stars like Mike Trout, Trea Turner, Mookie Betts, and reigning National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt, the D.R. can match them. Even with slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bowing out due to injury concerns, the Dominicans can field the likes of Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, Sandy Alcantara, and Manny Machado.

“Their whole bullpen is pretty much all closers, so that’s going to be fun to deal with,” said U.S. and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber to reporters last month.

“In the D.R., baseball is everything,” Rodriguez, who won the 2022 American League Rookie of the Year playing for the Seattle Mariners, told me. “I love watching all of the fans and sports in the U.S., but in the D.R., it’s like all of that fandom combined into one. There is just so much passion and energy in every inning. You’ll see it soon in the WBC.”

The WBC provides the clearest example of the cultural importance of baseball in the Caribbean, Central America, and nearby countries in South America, and a chance for those players to show what a concentrated dose of their country’s baseball talent looks like.

“I always hoped to play for the D.R. in the World Baseball Classic, and it’s just an honor to have that opportunity so soon,” said Rodriguez, 22.

It’s far from the only baseball hub in the region. Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and especially Venezuela (with Ronald Acuña Jr., Jose Altuve, and Andrés Giménez) boast strong teams. Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia are threats to play spoiler and even advance to the elimination rounds if things break their way.

Same Passion an Ocean Away

The Americas account for only half the 20-team tournament. Across the Pacific, there’s another country with a wealth of talent. 

Despite having only four MLB players (one of whom, Masataka Yoshida, is entering his first year in the U.S.), Japan is considered just a hair behind the U.S. and D.R. to win the whole thing.

With the incomparable Shohei Ohtani, San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish, and Roki Sasaki — who came within one inning of two consecutive perfect games last year in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league — Japan may have the best starting pitching in the tournament. 

The NPB has probably the second-highest baseball quality in the world after MLB, and Japan won the first two iterations of the WBC in 2006 and 2009.

After blowout victories over China (8-1) and Korea (13-4), the team is primed to advance to the elimination rounds before the U.S. plays its first game.

Instant Classics

One of the most unforgettable plays from the 2017 WBC was Adam Jones robbing Machado of a home run at a pivotal point in a showdown between the U.S. and D.R. Machado tipped his helmet to Jones as he veered off back to the dugout, and the U.S. would go on to win the game and the tournament. 

But another moment is even stronger in my memory. 

With two outs in the eighth inning, Dominican player Nelson Cruz attempted a steal against Puerto Rico and was thrown out by Yadier Molina (now the team’s manager) with Javy Baez applying the tag. What elevated the play to legend was Baez pointing to Molina and shouting out his excellent throw while the ball was still mid-flight, and applying the tag without even looking at Cruz.

It was a play that combined Baez’s incredible reflexes and his joy in representing his country — one I had to freeze on replay at just the right frame to make sure I was even seeing it right. It would be hard to imagine that sequence happening in an MLB playoff game, let alone in a regular-season game. 

The WBC is a rare opportunity for players to use their otherworldly talents with national pride at stake, and it brings out unique moments.

The Goliath Buys In

The last country to come around to the WBC was the U.S. After not even placing in the top three for the first three iterations of the tournament, the team assembled a star roster and won in 2017. 

In prior editions, American stars had been torn between seeing the WBC as baseball’s World Cup or just an extended exhibition. Seeing that champion U.S. squad on TV inspired the next group six years later.

“So many of us had so much fun watching that WBC,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.

A handful of stars quickly committed to the 2023 edition.

“With Mike Trout, Mookie [Betts], and Bryce [Harper] all committing so early, and Paul [Goldschmidt] and [Nolan] Arenado, you have some studs that want to play when they don’t necessarily need to — that draws a lot of guys in,” said Phillies shortstop Trea Turner. 

Harper is injured, but the others will add to a U.S. lineup that arguably edges out the D.R.’s for the best in the tournament (though the latter’s pitching is better). 

Unlike the 162-game regular season, where time and attrition naturally reveal the best teams, the WBC has each team play four group-stage games, followed by a single elimination bracket. International glory could come down to a standout performance, a big catch, or a show-stopping moment. For the international baseball scene, the stage has never been bigger.

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