Last Monday night, Japan beat Korea 5-3 in extra innings in the final of this year’s World Baseball Classic, defending its WBC title and bringing a fitting end to what sounds like such a great idea: bring teams from sixteen countries around the world together and have them go head-to-head in a grand tournament of America’s pastime, promoting national pride and giving the sport more exposure domestically and abroad…
Not quite, Bud Selig. Although the WBC might seem great on paper, there were many shortfalls that inevitably caused it to fizzle. First, the all-around apathy towards the event: although games drew large crowds and received high TV ratings in places like Japan and Puerto Rico, most American fans just didn’t seem to care. Whether because of poor scheduling (it’s hard to have an event in primetime in two hemispheres simultaneously), high ticket prices, or paucity of star players, the WBC has turned into the World Cup here in the States — it might be exciting and a big deal to everyone else, but we just don’t care enough.
The United States (which managed to reach the semifinals this time around) has enough talent to put together an all-star team which could blow away the competition. Because the WBC is held during spring training, however, many players did not want to miss camp to participate. Others declined invitations to play because of the risk of injury. These are legitimate concerns, but they detract from the quality of the WBC nonetheless.
In addition, many of the games played were meaningless. The pool-play, double-elimination format tournament led to “seeding” games where nothing was at stake and too much downtime between games. For instance, although the Japan-Korea final was thrilling — packing 50,000-plus frenzied noisemaking fans into Dodger Stadium — the rivalry between the two was somewhat dampened by the fact that the game was their fifth meeting in the tournament.
The Classic could take a page from the college basketball book, and put all the teams into one big single-elimination bracket. Not only would this format be more exciting, there would be interesting matchups in the early rounds — instead of having all Asian teams in one pool and all Latin American teams in another, how about seeing, say, Korea versus Venezuela in the opening round?
And speaking of matchups, some teams were clearly overmatched in the early rounds. Let’s face it: unlike March Madness, where a bottom-ranked team can at least give the number one seed a run for its money, there just aren’t sixteen countries in the world who are good enough at baseball. Unless teams like South Africa, Panama, and Chinese Taipei can get better in a hurry, the WBC in 2012 should consider including fewer teams.
Even with these disparities, however, the tournament saw its share of drama and upsets. In its opening game, the mighty Dominican Republic, with a lineup of MLB starts like Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, and David Ortiz, lost 3-2 to the Netherlands — whose starting pitcher was in high school — in what the Dutch manager (and everyone else) called “a miracle.” Two days later, the Dominican team would get a chance to redeem itself in an elimination game against the Dutch. As one Dominican player put it, “we will not be allowed back in our country if we lose.” The Netherlands team would once again defy all odds, scoring the winning run with two out in the bottom of the 11th inning to eliminate the Dominicans in one of the greatest upsets in international sports history.
Just as unthinkable was the early exit of the Cuban team. Shut out twice by Japan in the second round, Cuba failed to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time in sixty years — prompting Fidel Castro to issue a statement declaring an overhaul in the country’s sports program.
Despite its shortcomings, the World Baseball Classic still showed that baseball — which perhaps shouldn’t be considered “America’s game” anymore — can be successful on the international stage. There is certainly much room for improvement, from drawing interest to better scheduling to lowering prices. If the tournament organizers can learn from their mistakes and implement changes, then WBC 2012 should be a spectacle to look forward to.