The goal of the World Baseball Classic, which was first played in 2006, was to spread the game around the world, and in that vein, it has been a smashing success.
A perfect example of that, as the fifth iteration of the tournament gets underway this week, is Great Britain, which opens pool play Saturday night against Team USA at Chase Field in Phoenix. Baseball interest in that region of the world was fleeting in 2006; 17 years later, Great Britain qualified for the first time.
Already in this tournament, the Czech Republic stunned China in Tokyo Dome; Panama beat Chinese Taipei on its home field of Taichung International Baseball Stadium; and Italy defeated Cuba in that same venue.
There are sure to be more upsets to come.
“The WBC has seeded international growth, has grown the game internationally,” Paul Seiler, the long-time executive director of USA Baseball, said in an interview on Tuesday. “Exposed it to nontraditional markets in some regards.”
The tournament has also introduced several international stars to fans in the U.S. In 2006, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka starred for Japan, which defeated Cuba to win the first WBC at Petco Park in San Diego. The following year, Matsuzaka won the 2007 World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
In the 2009 WBC tournament, pitcher Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes played for Cuba. Chapman won the 2016 World Series as the closer for the Chicago Cubs, and Cespedes lost the 2015 World Series with the New York Mets.
Chapman, who recently signed a one-year contract with the Kansas City Royals, may play in the 2023 WBC as a member of Great Britain’s 50-man roster, thanks to his Jamaican roots.
Now, the WBC has progressed to feature MLB’s top players. This year, Shohei Ohtani could face teammate Mike Trout in a single-elimination game if Japan and Team USA advance that far.
The tournament’s success has impacted the U.S. team, as well. In the past, it has been like pulling teeth trying to get U.S.-born MLB players to leave spring training for two weeks and play for Team USA. In 2017, manager Jim Leyland sent pitchers home in mid-tournament because he didn’t feel they had the right commitment. In 2009, key position players abandoned the team before it lost a crucial semifinal against Japan at Dodger Stadium.
Not this year.
“This is the first time we haven’t had to ask a single player: ‘Do you want to play? Do you want to participate?’” Seiler said. “Every single guy conversely has reached out and said they wanted to be a part of it, which is amazing and incredible and makes us very excited about what this looks like for us.”
In this year’s tournament, which has been expanded from 16 to 20 teams, teams are divided into four pools and will play a round-robin format in the first round. The teams with the two best records in each pool reach the single-elimination quarterfinals. Two losses in a pool, and a team is virtually knocked out.
The U.S. will begin defending its 2017 title in a pool with Great Britain, Canada, Colombia and Mexico. The always-tough Mexican team seems to have long had Team USA’s number when it comes to international play.
The finals are slated for March 21 at Miami’s LoanDepot Park, also home to a first-round pool, the quarterfinals and semis.
While MLB is adjusting to its new rules, those playing in the WBC will go back to the past. There will be no pitch clocks or batter time restraints. If a manager wants to shift infielders, have at it.
“You can’t implement the new rules in this tournament,” Tony Reagins, MLB’s chief operations officer and Team USA’s general manager, said. “Every country hasn’t had a chance to see the new rules. It has to be fair, so we’re going with the 2022 rules.”
Reagins is following the late Bob Watson, Joe Garagiola Jr. and Joe Torre as Team USA GM.
Team USA’s manager is Mark DeRosa, a former player and MLB Network analyst with no managing experience. He follows veteran skippers Buck Martinez, Davey Johnson, Joe Torre and Leyland in the U.S. dugout.
“This is going to be a tough tightrope,” DeRosa said about managing a team with an All-Star at virtually every position. “That being said, there’s just so much talent.”
Seiler is the stabilizing force, having been with USA Baseball in an executive capacity dating back to 2000 when Team USA won its only Olympic gold medal in that year’s Summer Games in Australia. He was named executive director only months later.
MLB’s participation in the Olympics has long been a sore subject. To this day, MLB won’t take a break or allow players on the 40-man roster of each Major League team to participate in that tournament. Because of all this, baseball was dropped from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. As the host country in 2021, Japan was granted a request for baseball’s reinstatement and eventually defeated a cast of U.S. minor leaguers and retreads in the gold medal game.
The fact that the U.S. finished with a silver medal in those Games was a feather in the caps of both Seiler and Mike Scioscia, the veteran Los Angeles Angels manager he selected.
Scioscia, who was on the field before Wednesday night’s Team USA exhibition loss to the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, said Reagins asked him if was interested in managing this WBC team, but he turned the offer down.
He’s not making an Olympic return, either. Baseball won’t be played in the upcoming Paris Olympics, and its future at Los Angeles in 2028 has yet to be determined, Seiler said.
The WBC is here to stay. Established as a spring training alternative, it’s the only such baseball tournament in the world that allows active MLB players to participate for their respective native countries.
The attention the WBC garners in the U.S. is expanding, but the impact around the world has grown the sport exponentially.
Countries that qualify receive a sizeable stipend that increases depending on how far that team advances in the tournament. Half the proceeds are awarded to the players, but the other half goes to the individual baseball federations to increase participation locally in the sport.
During the 17 years of the World Baseball Classic, the tournament has helped heretofore baseball barren countries, including Israel, Great Britain, Colombia, Pakistan, Germany and the Czech Republic, either play in or emerge from the qualifying rounds. Players from Italy, Australia and The Netherlands—to name a few—have made the Major Leagues.
While there may be a glass ceiling on financially expanding baseball in North America, around the rest of the world, the sky is the limit.
“You just look at the ethnic diversity of our sport, and it’s incredible at every level,” Seiler said. “The expansion of the field from 16 to 20 teams just speaks to the growth of the sport globally.”
(This story has been updated in the headline and third paragraph with information on early upsets in the tournament.)