PHOENIX – It’s a traveling all-star show that sees baseball’s biggest and greatest stars play at the World Baseball Classic, and now we’re going to find out how many people across this country will be paying attention.
The first US game will be shown on Saturday night (9pm ET, Fox), but it certainly won’t have the rabid viewership of Japan, where 46% of all households watched Japan’s 13-4 win over South Korea.
It’s not headline news like in the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of reporters and thousands of fans fly in from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Nicaragua to watch the games in Miami.
While most Miami games are expected to sell out, or at least be close to being booked out, only one game in Phoenix sold out to see 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 countries like Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic and others, it’s certainly growing. If the US wins the WBC title again, as they did in 2017, there could be a rush of major league players to volunteer for the 2027 tournament.
“I think if this is going to go where it needs to go, eventually all countries will want their so-called best players,” said US coach Mark DeRosa. “And it shouldn’t be as difficult as it was to put together a list.
“But I totally understand. Over the course of 162 (games) in the major leagues, you want your best players to be healthy and firing on all cylinders. It’s a big challenge to get these guys rolling.”
There really is little downside for positional players. They’ll get their work done every day, face some of the best pitchers in the world, and be ready for opening day a week from the tournament.
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The real risk is for the pitchers, who are suddenly being asked to step up their efforts and pitch with the adrenaline rush of a postseason game. The risk of injury was cited by Milwaukee Brewers Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen as reasons for rejecting offers.
It would be different if they landed lucrative long-term deals, but when you’re going around the corner with free agency year after year, why take the risk?
“I totally understand that,” says Tony Reagins, US general manager. “They haven’t earned that much money yet.”
Teams have historically discouraged their players from participating and may ban a player from participating in the WBC if they were injured in the previous season.
“If this is going to go where it has to and can go,” DeRosa says, “some of the major league clubs have to be willing to go along with the mindset of these guys that are playing.”
But if teams are reluctant to give the WBC their blessing because of the tournament’s schedule — pausing spring training and ending a week before opening day — when is the right time?
If you’ve played at the WBC after the World Series, players are weary from the six-month season and don’t want to extend the season any longer than necessary. If you played it during the All-Star hiatus, talk about pausing the baseball schedule for two weeks when teams are rusty.
Really, if 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 get into serious competition like this at the back end?” DeRosa said. “How can you expect the major league season to take a break? Asking these people to turn it off for 2½ (to) three weeks would be criminal.
“I don’t know if there is a perfect answer.”
Really, the best way to increase the WBC in this country, Team USA players will tell you, is simply to win.
Thanks to their 2017 title, more players than ever have volunteered to play for Team USA this time.
“I think that’s what made the WBC so much more popular, especially for American players,” said USA first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. “Some of the other countries always got their best shifts to play, but this time more people said yes. I’ve had people say, ‘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 like, ‘Man, it would be great if baseball ever got to this level. This is really a great event.'”
The momentum of the US championship has been stalled by Covid, delaying the WBC for another two years, but if the US wins again, popularity in that country could increase quickly.
Of course, Team USA takes the tournament seriously, even bringing in a mental skills coach — Chad Bowling, who works for the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys — to speak in front of the team.
“I just want our guys to fire,” DeRosa says, “to play energetic playoff baseball, step on the gas offensively, try to get as many runs as possible and execute positions. I want team, I want relentless team baseball falling down on these other teams.
Certainly, the teams that succeed in the WBC — or in some cases manage to come home with at least one win — will see baseball’s popularity grow in their country.
Great Britain manager Drew Spencer pulled out his mobile phone on Friday and showed the BBC network talking about their victory over Spain in Regensburg, Germany, to qualify for the WBC title.
How significant was the win for baseball in the UK?
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” said Britain manager Jonathon Crammar, the only player or coach on the team who was born and raised in London and will return to his bartender duties at his London pub after the tournament. “I still can not believe it. I’ve never been to a major league game here, and I look out and think of the 2001 World Series.
“Here on the hill stood Mariano Rivera. Here Luis Gonzalez scored the decisive goal. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling dominated here. Just unbelievable.”
Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Trayce Thompson, who plays for Great Britain, spoke about how much this means to his father, former NBA star Mychal Thompson, who grew up in the Bahamas. Thompson even wears his father’s number, 43.
“To be able to represent my family, my dad’s side,” Thompson said, “and to play with these guys, how much that means to them and how profound that would be to an entire nation, is something that’s quite.” is cool.”
And yes, he’s been in baseball long enough to know that anything can happen in the WBC — even a giant fuss over the US — and has sent 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. That’s the beauty of this game.”
Hall of Famer Larry Walker knows Team Canada is also understaffed, with Freddie Freeman and Tyler O’Neil 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 against the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park on Thursday, they were only allowed to use one of the Cubs’ 12 indoor batting cages, with one caveat — only Freeman and O’Neill were allowed 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, only two boys can use the cage? What did you think would happen? We wanted to steal it?”
Mexico coach Benji Gil believes their motivation comes from their large base of Mexican fans residing in Phoenix and Southern California, as they believe they have as great a chance as any other team to be the last standing.
“It’s going to be different because I feel the support of the whole country,” said Los Angeles Dodgers ace Julio Urias, who will start Game 1 for Mexico. “We all know there are a lot of Mexicans in Los Angeles and (this is) something special for them.
“It will be a nice experience. It’s different, but it’s baseball.”
And it’s national pride, whether 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,” said Colombia coach Jolbert Cabrera, “because it doesn’t happen often. We show what we can do. We are not afraid of anyone 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 penetrate the souls of that country’s baseball fans, Team USA must win once more.
“That’s what we’re here for,” said US captain Mike Trout.
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