Why the World Baseball Classic is so Important


Steve Zaegel


Evan Hugge '23

Four months ago, the world sat fixed on their television screens as the best soccer players in the world gathered in Qatar to compete in the FIFA World Cup, arguably the largest and most widely watched sporting event in the world. Two weeks ago, fans from Japan to Nicaragua tuned in for a different kind of tournament, one that has gotten decidedly less media attention since its inception in 2006, at least in the United States. I’m talking, of course, about the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial competition between the best national teams in baseball. For much of its existence, the Classic has largely flown under the radar of national attention, due in part to the absence of many star players, who are reluctant to play in the tournament right before the beginning of the MLB season. Indeed, even this year’s star-studded American team is missing the reigning AL MVP, Aaron Judge, and the pitching staff is an eclectic mix of unknowns and former big names now past their prime. This reluctance of many American-born stars to commit is due in part to fear of injury (a legitimate fear in view of star closer Edwin Diaz’s season-ending patellar tendon tear earlier in the tournament), but there also seems to be a deeper skepticism surrounding the tournament in the US, one that stems from a deep misunderstanding of just how important the Classic is in other parts of the world. 

The United States has always been the center of the baseball world, as both the birthplace of the sport and its exporter to the outside world. Players from Europe, East Asia, and the Caribbean come here to play, to compete in the only truly global league. Of course, many other countries have domestic leagues, the most successful being South Korea’s KBO and Japan’s NPB, but the MLB reigns supreme. The United States has never had to prove itself on the international stage of baseball, a sport that is known often simply as “America’s Pastime”, a sport that is as American as apple pie and expensive healthcare. Unfortunately, this can sometimes blind us American fans to the popularity of the game elsewhere in the world, like in the Dominican Republic, which has produced over 10 percent of active MLB players despite having a population of only 10.7 million, or in Japan, where two of the highest-rated television events in the country’s history are the 2006 and 2009 Classic finals. In a video recently circulating on Twitter, five Dominican players were asked whether they would rather win the WBC or the World Series, and every single one of them said the WBC. After hearing interviews like that, and listening to the roaring crowds in the Tokyo Dome, it is hard to deride the WBC as a silly “exhibition tournament” or a “cheap World Series knockoff”. For baseball fans in Taiwan, Colombia, and the Czech Republic, who have never seen their greatest stars flying the colors of their nation’s flag, the Classic is anything but that.

I will admit that this is the first time I have really paid any attention to the World Baseball Classic, and I can confidently say that I have not been disappointed. The games have been flashy, exciting, and filled with a kind of passion for the sport that the tournament’s detractors would never have expected to see when it debuted 17 years ago. Watching upcoming stars like the 21-year-old flamethrowing pitcher Roki Sasaki of Japan, and even players like Czech shortstop Martin Schneider, who works as a firefighter as his day job, gives me confidence in the future of baseball as a global sport, a future that is embodied by the energy of the World Baseball Classic.