March 13, 2017
The World Baseball Classic and the Zeal of the Convert
I’m an extremely new devotee of the World Baseball Classic. I didn’t like it in 2006, didn’t watch it in 2009, and was a jackass about it on Twitter in 2013. As recently as a few months ago, when there were reports that the tournament might be doomed if it didn’t yield higher attendance and more profit this year than in the past, I was all for simply letting it die.
That distaste for the event didn’t grow out of pure cynicism or grumpiness. It was rooted in something real. I’ve long been a fervent supporter of the (increasingly quaint) idea that the 162-game MLB regular season should be at the center of our attention and celebration of the sport. I like the long season—the inevitable ups and downs, the secure sense that all drama is earned, and the challenges presented to those who build and deploy teams over such a schedule. The inexorable expansion of the playoff format and the increasing emphasis on playoff success have sapped some of the meaning from The 162, and further encroachment thereupon really grated on me.
Two books I read this winter have turned me around. The first was A People’s History of Baseball, which documents the game through the lens of the owners’ priorities and endeavors. For the most part, three parallel considerations sit at the heart of everything the owners have done and said for the last 100 years:
The book illustrates various ways in which the long season, as it has been shaped and re-framed over the years, helps the owners do those things. It helps them stay a half-step ahead of the players in CBA negotiations, helps them control salaries and salary structures, and helps ensure their ongoing baseball monopoly. Whether that is an intrinsically bad thing can be debated, but the track record of the owners’ dogged pursuit of their own interests suggests that they rarely align with most fans in that regard.
The long season, added playoffs, and increasing ubiquity of MLB on television and other media platforms all dampen the average fan’s interest in any other kind of baseball. The other book that helped me see that, and to see why it’s not a good thing, was Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend. It’s an authorized biography from 2010, and while it’s not perfect, it’s exhaustive and fascinating. One thing it chronicles beautifully is just how often Mays played baseball, during his professional career. He led or participated in barnstorming tours almost every winter. He spent an especially long offseason playing in the Puerto Rican winter league, eventually winning the Caribbean Series.
Mays was the best player of his generation (and maybe the best player ever), but played what we would now call minor-league or exhibition baseball for about half of the offseason. That was, in part, because he was terrible with money, and because even the highest salary in baseball often allowed him only to make his ends meet. Still, watching Mays play baseball was a real thrill, and many people got to experience it in unique places, under circumstances that now seem foreign.
In general, I have found that the more partisan a fan is—that is, the more they root for one particular team—the less likely they are to like the WBC. I know many fans worry that their favorite team will lose a key player to an injury associated with playing full-speed, full-intensity baseball earlier in the calendar than they otherwise would, and that they don’t view that risk as being worth whatever reward the actual competition can deliver.
There are a lot of reasons why they feel that way, ranging from perfectly valid (the games are all on MLB Network, which is available to a majority of baseball fans but not to anywhere near all of them; March Madness and the climaxes of two pro sports’ regular seasons coincide with the tournament, plus it’s apparently NFL free agency week or something) to unfortunate (fans have become more provincial over the years, more wed to their teams and less appreciative of the game itself).
Some percentage of those fans are unreachable, but I suspect that if you’ve read this far, you’re either a WBC supporter or someone open to changing their mind. Given that premise, here’s my elevator pitch for the WBC:
That’s a long elevator ride as it is, but let me hold the “Door Open” button for one more moment, to tell you what I think you should mention to anyone who will listen about the tournament. Tell them this: it’s fun. It provides an unavoidable reminder that MLB restrains and stunts the joy of the game, at times. It’s not just about bat flips. Runners try for more extra bases in the WBC. Players make more daring plays. Players talk about feeling more certain that the fans will be behind them during the WBC than during MLB games.
Nelson Cruz said, “It’s always a business” when he’s playing in the States. We shouldn’t gloss over such statements, and maybe we should try to change some of that. This version of the game is more interesting, and probably better. Not all of it would work over a long season, and the long season will be a welcome relief from the frenzy of some of these high-stakes comebacks. Still, there’s plenty that the league around which this event is built could learn from the thing itself.