Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The World Baseball Classic Comes of Age

The fourth iteration of the World Baseball Classic has been a godsend. The passion and flair usually reserved for Latin American nations has spilled over to the usually stoic Americans and Japanese. The drama of upsets and close games and close plays has brought baseball out of hibernation a month early. Emotions are high, and most importantly- people care. Players care. For all of the formality of the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009, and even the entertaining climax of 2013, the World Baseball Classic of 2017 no longer feels like a niche interest chore. It has arrived as a true platform for the growth and progression of the game.
There is always some new indictment of baseball. It's too slow. Too leisurely. There are too many games. Games are too long. On and on. Every year it seems there is another column about one of two topics: how baseball is dying or how to save baseball. It's an easy way to get clicks and reads. Say something negative about something I like and I'll read it, scoffing away every point, regardless of validity. Every few years, when the World Baseball Classic rolls around, there's a new piece about how it's flawed. It's too early in the year. Too much risk for the players. Too many games. Not enough games. So on, so forth. While criticism is the backbone of progressive success, too often it feels more like using a magnifying glass, trying to find flaws and blow them out of proportion.

This year's complaints range from the classic we should get rid of this nonsensical liability to IT SHOULD BE EVERY YEAR OR NEVER AGAIN. It's tiresome. Who is clamoring for the World Cup to be every year? Or the Olympics? Sure, those events would be a blast to have more often, but they would lose the luster of being rare and special. Over-saturation turns things bland and uneventful. I remember when the National Hockey League first played a game outdoors about ten years ago. It was a really cool event to watch but doing the event year after year took away from the spectacle. The game is still really neat, but in no way is it as magical as it was, at least in my opinion.

The neo-classical argument against modern baseball is the influx of Latin American influence. Players are brash, arrogant, flashy, cocky, and downright fun to watch. In 2013, Fernando Rodney caused a stir when he celebrated closing out each Dominican Republic victory by pantomiming the act of drawing a bow and arrow then firing it into space. People were furious. Mostly in the crowd born before Reagan was president, but that's a whole other can of beans. RESPECT THE GAME was a common thread in the complaints. But just let that capslocked phrase jingle around your brain for a second. Remember that it is a game. Disrespecting baseball would be something closer to a player just saying "eh, fuck this" and just walking off the field, mid-inning. Wearing your hat slightly cocked to the left, however, is just a matter of preference. 

Baseball is a game of cheaters, gamblers, liars, scumbags and dirtballs, and that just covers the American League in 1919.

There is something pure about the World Baseball Classic, though. Something genuine that comes from a quadrennial competition on an international scale. Sure, "pure" is a stretch when advertising appears on the sleeves and helmets of many teams, but the vibe of it seems correct.

The stars of the show, as was the case in 2013, are the Latin American teams. Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, that year's finalists, are collectively an embodiment of where baseball is going. Adrian Beltre and Jose Bautista, now elder statesmen of the game, are the Dominican Republic's outspoken figureheads. Beltre is often considered the player that most encapsulates the boyish joy that is romanticized about the game. Bautista wears his heart, mind, and soul on his sleeve, as seen during his controversial batflip during the 2015 MLB playoffs.

Team Puerto Rico is the catalyst for division between old school and new blood baseball ideology. Between a team-wide hair bleaching trend and Javier Baez celebrating an out before it was inevitably made, they scare the bejesus out of those infatuated with a time when players rounded the bases like they were mulling over their tax returns. 

This year, Rob Manfred and the powers that be can breathe a sigh of relief. The United States has made the final for the first time. The first three U.S. teams were star-studded but seemed hollow. There was always a feeling of disinterest and malcontent in obligation to join the team. This led to lackluster play and early exits. Thankfully, never low enough to require qualification in the subsequent tournament. 

2017's team seems much different. Fronted by personalities like the charismatic Marcus Stroman, the damn-near-mythical Giancarlo Stanton, and the new king of American baseball- Adam Jones, Team USA is exciting. They're full of pride in wearing the uniform. A championship would mean something to them. They don't need Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant. They have Christian Yelich. YES.

What comes from a successful United States squad? Ratings. Attention. But maybe this is the way it needed to be. If the 2006 team had lounged their way to the title, who cares? We were supposed to win! If it had happened in 2009? The first one was a fluke! 2013 had to be won by the Dominican Republic. Their inner fire gave us the rally plantain and conflict in baseball's religious sects. Eleven years out from the inaugural WBC, we have two downright bonkers rosters pitted against one another in a winner-take-all game to determine which nation is the face of international baseball

No pressure, guys.

Who knows? Maybe in 2021 the WBC will be on non-premium tv? Maybe there will be radio broadcasts? No matter what comes of the fifth Classic, I'll eat it up. Hopefully I'm still writing here.

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