Can Team USA increase interest in 2023 event?
PHOENIX — It’s a traveling All-Star show, with baseball’s biggest and greatest stars playing in the World Baseball Classic, and now we’re about to find out just how many people in this country will pay attention.
The first U.S. game will be shown Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, Fox), but it certainly won’t have the rabid viewership of Japan where 46% of all households were watching Japan’s 13-4 victory over South Korea.
It’s not front-page news like in the Dominican Republic, with hundreds of reporters and thousands of fans flying from the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Nicaragua to watch the games in Miami.
While most of the games in Miami are expected to sell out or at least be near-capacity, just one game has been sold out in Phoenix to watch Team USA: Sunday night’s game against Mexico at Chase Field (10 p.m. ET, FS1).
But while the WBC’s popularity in this country pales in comparison to the likes of Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic and others, it’s certainly growing. If USA wins the WBC title again as it did in 2017, there could be a stampede of major-league players volunteering their services for the 2027 tournament.
“I think at some point, if this is going to go where it needs to go, that all countries would want their so-called best players,” USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “And it shouldn’t be as difficult as it was to put a roster together.
“But I completely understand. Over the course of 162 (games) in the Major Leagues, you want your best players healthy, firing on all cylinders. It’s a big ask to get these guys rolling.’’
There really is little downside for position players. They will get their work in each day, face some of the best pitchers in the world, and when the tournament is over, will be ready for Opening Day with a week to spare.
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The real risk is for the pitchers, who suddenly are asked to ramp up their efforts, pitching with the adrenaline rush of a postseason game. The injury risk was cited by Milwaukee Brewers Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen as the reason for declining offers.
It would be different if they signed to lucrative long-term deals, but when you’re going year to year, with free agency around the corner, why take any chances?
“I understand that completely,’’ USA general manager Tony Reagins says. “They haven’t made that big money yet.’’
Teams have discouraged their players from participating in the past, and can prohibit a player from being in the WBC if they had an injury in the past season.
“If this is going to go where it needs to go, and can go, DeRosa says, “some of the Major League clubs are going to have to be willing to be ok with the mindset with those guys playing.’’
But if teams are hesitant to give the WBC their blessing because of the timing of the tournament — interrupting spring training and finishing a week before Opening Day — when is the right time?
If you played the WBC after the World Series, players are exhausted from the six-month long season, and don’t want to extend the season any longer than needed. If you played it during the All-Star break, you’re talking about interrupting the baseball schedule for two weeks, with teams getting rusty.
Really, when you think about it, this is the only reasonable time it can be played.
“How can you ask these guys to go through 162 and then on the back end get into a serious competition like this?’’ DeRosa said. “How can you expect the Major League season to take a break? To ask these guys to shut it down for 2½ (to) three weeks, would be criminal.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer.’’
Really, the best way to grow the WBC in this country, Team USA players will tell you, is simply by winning.
More players volunteered to play for Team USA this time than ever before, thanks to their 2017 title.
“I think that made the WBC so much more popular, especially for American players,’’ USA first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “Some of the other countries have always gotten their best layers to play, but more guys were saying yes this time around. I had guys saying, ‘Oh, man, that looks like so much fun.’
“I think it just takes time. I was watching the World Cup last summer, and I was thinking, ‘Man, it’d be awesome if baseball could ever get to that level. This is really a great event.'”
The momentum from USA’s championship was stalled with Covid, delaying the WBC by another two years, but if the U.S. wins again, well, the popularity in this country could pick up in a hurry.
Certainly, Team USA is taking the tournament seriously, even bringing in a mental skills coach — Chad Bowling, who works for the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys — to address the team.
“I just want our guys fired up,’’ DeRosa says, “playing playoff baseball energy-wise, putting the throttle down offensively, trying to score as many runs as possible, executing positions. I want team, I want relentless, team baseball throwing down at these other teams.’’
Certainly, the teams that have success in the WBC — or, in some cases, manage to come home with at least one victory — will see baseball’s popularity will grow in their country.
Drew Spencer, manager of Great Britain, took out his cell phone Friday, showing the BBC network talking about their victory over Spain in Regensburg, Germany to qualify for the WBC title.
How momentous was the victory for baseball in the United Kingdom?
“It was the greatest moment of my life,’’ says Great Britain hitting coach Jonathon Crammar, the only player or coach on the team born and raised in London and who will return to his bartender duties at his London pub when the tournament ends. “I still can’t believe it. I’ve never been to a major-league game here, and I’m looking out, and I’m thinking about that 2001 World Series.
“This is where Mariano Rivera stood on the mound. This is where Luis Gonzalez got the game-winning hit. This is where Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling dominated. Just amazing.’’
Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Trayce Thompson, who is playing for Great Britain, talked about how much this means to his father, former NBA star Mychal Thompson, who grew up in the Bahamas. Thompson is even wearing his father’s number, 43.
“To be able to represent my family, my dad’s side of the family,’’ Thompson said, “and to play with these guys, how much this means to them and how deep of an impact this would make on an entire nation, is something that’s pretty cool.’’
And, yes, he has been around baseball long enough to know that anything can happen in the WBC — even a gigantic upset over USA — and delivered a message to his teammates.
“Just embrace the moment,’’ he said, “because you never know what can happen. I was on a team (the Los Angeles Dodgers) that won 111 games last year, and we were out in four games.
“Anything can happen. It’s the beautiful thing about this game.’’
Hall of Famer Larry Walker knows that Team Canada is also short-handed, with Freddie Freeman and Tyler O’Neil as the only major-league players on the roster, but they’re playing with a WBC-sized chip on their shoulder.
When Canada played an exhibition game Thursday against the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park, they were permitted to use only one of the Cubs’ 12 indoor hitting cages, with a caveat — Only Freeman and O’Neill were permitted to use the batting cage.
“I don’t know who was responsible for keeping us out,’’ Walker said, “but that really got me. Come on, just two guys can use the cage? What did they think was going to happen? We were going to steal it?’’
Mexico manager Benji Gil believes their motivation will come from their large contingent of Mexican fans who live in Phoenix and Southern California, believing they have as strong a chance as any team to be the last ones standing.
“It’s going to be different since I feel the backing of all the country,’’ says Los Angeles Dodgers ace Julio Urias, who will start Game 1 for Mexico. “We all know that in Los Angeles there’s a lot of Mexicans and (this is) something special for them.
“It’s going to be a beautiful experience. It’s different, but it’s baseball.’’
And it’s national pride, no matter if you’re a WBC favorite like Japan or the Dominican Republic, or a longshot like Colombia.
“We’re just going to have fun, enjoy the moment and bask in it,’’ Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera said, “because it doesn’t come around often. We’ll show what we’re capable of. We’re not afraid of anybody, or anything, right now.
“Our goal is to compete and show that we deserve to be here.’’
It may be nice for Colombia, but for this tournament to be engrained in the soul of baseball fans in this country, Team USA needs to win once again.
“That,’’ USA captain Mike Trout said, “is what we’re here for.’’
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