This tweet from MLB Network’s Jon Morosi on Tuesday spoke volumes about what the World Baseball Classic represents:
The night before, Japan roared back for a 6-5 semifinal victory over Mexico on a walk-off, two-run double by Munetaka Murakami. Even if you were just watching it on TV, you could feel the energy in that game. Sure, it might be a “meaningless” tournament in the sense that the outcome doesn’t affect the standings for the 2023 Major League Baseball season — but that doesn’t mean the World Baseball Classic has any less meaning behind it.
Just five tournaments and 17 years into its existence, it feels like the WBC seriously took the world by storm this time around. Think about that insane stat put out last week (including from Front Office Sports) saying Japan’s pool-play win over Korea drew 62 million viewers in Japan alone, which was more than the most-watched World Series game ever.
Now, to have a Spanish journalist compare the WBC to the World Cup, probably the most prestigious championship in any sport worldwide? That had to be music to MLB’s ears.
As much as this tournament provides an outlet for baseball players to represent their countries (however they’re qualified to do so), it’s also a massive opportunity to grow the game of baseball. MLB has tried to get the ball rolling in international markets in which it’s not otherwise very popular (i.e. the Cubs/Cardinals series in London this summer). This, however, feels like the No. 1 way to get things done.
There were 20 countries from around the world participating in the WBC. That means there were 20 teams that fans from around the world could identify with. That goes for the countries who love their baseball, like the Dominican Republic, and also for the countries where baseball is still sort of getting off the ground, like Great Britain. It’s an avenue for the game to become even more of a global sport than it already is.
If that does happen, this tournament was arguably the biggest contributor. As Morosi tweeted, the 2023 WBC is an inflection point — not just for the WBC itself, but for the game as a whole. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, but you can argue that any type of upward trajectory received a tremendous boost from the success of this year’s tournament.
But what about for MLB, specifically? After all, as the top baseball league in the world, the growing of the sport has to include the growing of MLB. If more markets are going to become more invested in baseball, MLB is going to be a major factor.
There’s long been the argument that the league hasn’t been able to market its stars successfully, at least not in comparison to the other top professional leagues in the country. The NFL has quarterbacks leading the way (though they’re of course not the only ones). The NBA seems to market anyone who reaches star status well. Meanwhile, MLB has issues doing the same.
But this tournament ended up being a perfect vehicle for that. Everyone knows Angels teammates Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, so even though an electric Ohtani vs. Trout matchup ended the WBC with a 3-2 Japan win over the USA on Tuesday, it’s not like either of them needed the big stage. But someone like Randy Arozarena, who announced himself to MLB fans with his 2020 postseason performance, now seems to have announced himself to the world with a WBC showing that included a .450/.607/.900 slash and highlight after highlight for Mexico.
MLB feels very regional, and the teams feel more recognizable than the players in most cases. But at the WBC, the players weren’t playing for one of those brands. It was about the countries they were representing, yes, but it was also the players — not the MLB teams they play for — who were getting the recognition. And if MLB wants to continue to grow around the world, a big part of that is fans connecting to the players themselves.
That’s not to say fans finding MLB teams to root for isn’t important, too. Heck, it might be even more important in a place like Mexico, which isn’t traditionally a baseball country.
To connect this to the Cubs, think about what Javier Assad did during his WBC run with Mexico. He pitched in just two games covering 5 2/3 innings, but those two appearances saw him shut down the star-studded lineups from the USA and Puerto Rico (two hits, one walk, six strikeouts, zero runs). Though he may have previously been overlooked as far as Cubs Opening Day roster projections go, the Mexican fanbase surely took notice.
Now, without actual evidence to back this up, this seems possible: a kid from Mexico tuned into the WBC and watched Assad pitch. Wanting to learn more about someone from Mexico who took down some of the best players in the world, that kid discovers Assad is a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. And then, wanting to see how Assad does with the Cubs, that kid decides to keep tabs on him, and in turn, keeps tabs on the Cubs.
Right there, both the Cubs and MLB gained a new follower in a country where baseball is certainly not the dominant sport. Obviously, that’s just a theory, but it’s a plausible scenario that could’ve happened with people from any of the participating countries. That’s how you grow the game.
The tournament isn’t without its faults. Injuries to Mets closer Edwin Díaz and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve put a damper on things. The timing of the WBC also led to some issues, such as pitchers either working under restrictions or declining to participate altogether as they prepare for the regular season.
Regardless, this year’s WBC was a success. It had a playoff atmosphere seemingly every time a pitch was thrown. It provided fans with some instant classics, and it provided fans with some moments (like the aforementioned Ohtani/Trout showdown) they could’ve only dreamed of before.
One of the goals for the World Baseball Classic is, in part, to market MLB and the game of baseball itself to a global audience. Now that the 2023 tournament is over, it feels like a mission accomplished.