Today Phoenix, Tomorrow The World?

Arrogant little country, aren’t we?

Here we are, thinking that for 120 years we’ve been determining the champion of the baseball world with something we call the World Series.  The United States, for sure.  North America, perhaps, at least in 1993.  The world?  Hah.

Fact is, nearly 30 per cent of current major league players were not born in the United States.  That two-way star that’s probably gonna sign the sport’s first half-billion contract by next year?  Japanese.  That stud 20-something outfielder that was traded from Washington to the Padres last summer?  Dominican.  His new teammate who got another $330 million in a long-term commitment to become the fourth shortstop-eligible member of his starting lineup?  By heritage, Dutch.

By throwing in the little wrinkle of ancestry, a large enough field of competitive countries with top tier professional talent was concieved, and 17 years ago the first-ever World Baseball Classic was held.  No, it’s not a post-season culmination, as is not only the case in the U.S. but also in Japan, where that series regularly gets fall sellouts before crowds that more closely resemble the decibel level and, sometimes, sobriety, of soocer/football.  But it’s also not the sleepwalk-like pace and featuring lesser known players as most of the Olympic competitions have been.  As a way to inject some intrigue and drama into the spring training season (not to mention push up the start of exhibition games into February), the first WBCs were more curiosity than competition, at least here in the U.S.  But in Asia and especially in Latin America, where the Caribbean Series that is traditonally held in early February as a Champions League of winter baseball, the WBC has been a far bigger deal.  No surprise Japan won the first two tourneys, and the Dominican Republic the third.  Finally, in 2017, the U.S. broke through with a hard-fought championship.

Now, after a couple of delays due to that damn virus, the WBC is back, once again kicking off with games in Asia that have allowed Tubi, FOX’s ad-supported streaming service, into live professional baseball coverage for the first time and have already produced some exciting results.  Particularly at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium. where the homestanding Chinese Taipei have already produced drama for a raucous crowd that literally chanted and roared their way through every pitch–even without a pitch clock.

In their opener, they actually allowed a European team to become a global Cinderella, as Ryan Phillips of The Big Lead reported:

The Czech Republic pulled off a dramatic win over China in the World Baseball Classic Thursday night and immediately became the darlings of the tournament. The 8-5 win likely secured the Czechs auto-qualification for the 2026 tournament and they are still alive for a berth in the knockout rounds. 

China led the Czechs 5-4 heading into the top of the ninth inning. Martin Muzik came up to the plate with runners and second and third and one out. This is what he did next:

Muzik’s go-ahead homer is more impressive considering he played at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina, then went undrafted and never played minor league ball. Other than some time in the Czech Baseball Extraliga, he hasn’t played anywhere.

And this morning, needing a win for any hope of advancement, the Taiwan contigent rallied with six unanswered runs in their final three at-bats for a 11-7 victory against Mike Piazza’s Italian team.  Much as I blindly cheer anything Italian these days, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the passion and emotion that Chinese Taipei’s players and fans showed.  Clearly, those Little League World Series teams didn’t all grow up to become virologists.

And tomorrow night, in Arizona, the U.S. will begin competing, trying to defend its championship.  They draw Great Britain in the opener, which, were this soccer, there would be concern and hype.   In this sport?  Well, look at the projected batting orders and you tell me:

United States

  1. RF Mookie Betts (Dodgers)
  2. CF Mike Trout (Angels)
  3. DH Pete Alonso (Mets)
  4. 1B Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals)
  5. 3B Nolan Arenado (Cardinals)
  6. LF Kyle Tucker (Astros)
  7. SS Trea Turner (Phillies)
  8. C J.T. Realmuto (Phillies)
  9. 2B Jeff McNeil (Mets)

SP: Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

Great Britain

  1. C Harry Ford (Mariners prospect)
  2. CF Trayce Thompson (Dodgers)
  3. 1B B.J. Murray Jr. (Cubs prospect)
  4. DH Matt Koperniak (Cardinals prospect)
  5. SS Nick Ward (Athletics prospect)
  6. 3B Darnell Sweeney (Pirates)
  7. 2B Justin Wylie (no MLB affiliation)
  8. LF D’Shawn Knowles (Angels prospect)
  9. RF Anferneee Seymour (no MLB affiliation)

SP: Vance Worley 

When you’re facing a team whose top player is the least athletic son of a Bahamian-born Lakers announcer (you did know the Bahamas are technically part of the British Empire though they’ve been independent since 1966, right?), I think you can see that this one, while it will be showcased in prime time on FOX, will likely not be competitive.

But it will get tougher.  The Miami quintet of the DR, the PR, Venezuela, Nicaragua and–yes–Israel (I assume for those Broward Country snowbirds and retirees to have a rooting interest in?) will be awaiting in later rounds, and all indications are Loan Depot Park will see more excitement and interest than they ever will for any mere Marlins game this year.  Later games should not only be sellouts, they will likely be give South Florida much more to be passionate about this time of year than merely the climate.

Purists, particuarly American-born fans, still haven’t quite embraced this tournament, and particularly mock the rules that have allowed the likes of Israel, Italy and Britain to even field teams.  But their entry has helped grown fandom in these countries, particularly for a sport that needs an infusion of interest from fans of any age or location they can find.  And as MLB is now earnestly looking at streaming as a key source of distribution and revenue as the RSNs that they built their empires of the last four decades on begin to fall apart, that’s crucial for the game itself.   There will be some regular season games overseas again, but unlike the NFL such games can rarely be made into an event.  The WBC accomplishes that, as close to a regular-season vibe as possible, and now with FOX’s support to boot.

So, yep, I’ll be watching.  And I kinda hope even you purists give it a shot.


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