Long live the World Baseball Classic – Beyond the Box Score

I did not expect to get into the World Baseball Classic. It wasn’t a question of whether I was ready for winter to be over; I have been desperate for baseball’s return since approximately two weeks after the final out of the World Series. The WBC just didn’t seem like it was going to be the return of baseball. I’m also not one to get excited about pitchers and catchers reporting or the first few spring training games, and given that the WBC runs at the same time, it was easy for me to lump it in with spring training as something that might superficially resemble baseball but is not actually baseball.

This wasn’t a hard position for me to hold. Most of the news in the run-up to the WBC seemed to be about all the players who had decided not to compete for their respective national teams. And while I have certainly changed as a fan in the last four years, I didn’t remember anything from the 2013 edition of the WBC. All that combined to make me pretty unenthused.

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But then the games started. And while I wasn’t about to wake up at 4:00 AM to watch them begin, I figured I’d turn them on while I had nothing else to do. I saw Yoelqui Cespedes, younger brother of Yoenis, rip a double for Cuba in a losing effort against Japan. I saw Ryan Dempster, last seen in the majors in 2013 and only months away from his 40th birthday, get the start for Canada, and face down a lineup out of the Dominican Republic that featured exclusively above-average major leaguers. And today, I saw the United States walk off against Colombia on the back of an Adam Jones single that scored Christian Yelich.

At some point between the retired MLBers, the youthful Cubans and Koreans, and the 42-year-old Dutch reliever with a career 1.00 ERA in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse — no, that’s actually what it’s called — I converted. I started to care about the results of these games, even the ones that I had no connection to. I know nearly none of the players on the Japanese team, for example, but their cheering section is incredible, and I found myself with some real emotional investment in the outcome of their games.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. There are a ton of things to like about the WBC — the inherent fun of national competitions, the chance to see players and fans from around the world, the early return of baseball — and very few reasons not to let yourself get carried away by all those fun and good aspects.

Before this month, I probably would’ve described the WBC as “not real” in some way, given that these teams don’t have any kind of history, nor are they constructed to maximize a given country’s chance of winning (as a general rule). But it took only a few games to see that, to the players participating, the WBC is extremely real.

The World Baseball Classic is what it is: a not-totally-serious chance to see baseball played a month early by a wide mix of players. What you do with that is entirely up to you. I started this edition a skeptic, and expected to do nothing more than ignore it. But it turns out that fun baseball doesn’t take much more than a few engaged players and fans. MLB has hit the right lighthearted note in their promotion this year, and it’s got me looking forward to the elimination rounds and, after that, the 2020 WBC.

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