If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve probably been enjoying the World Baseball Classic. This is the fifth WBC — the most recent was delayed by two years because of COVID-19 — and it was absolutely worth waiting for.
Keith Olbermann, however, was less impressed. Last week, he captured the ire of the baseball world when he tweeted this:
First Freddie Freeman, now Edwin Diaz.
The WBC is a meaningless exhibition series designed to: get YOU to buy another uniform, to hell with the real season, and split up teammates based on where their grandmothers got laid.
Call it off. Now. https://t.co/A5IT4rJWON
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) March 16, 2023
Olbermann would go on to apologize for the tweet’s sexism, but he stood by the sentiment: Cancel the meaningless World Baseball Classic.
It’s easy to understand why he would say this given injuries to Edwin Diaz, Freddie Freeman, and Jose Altuve. But injuries happen in spring training, too — just ask Gavin Lux, Brendan Rodgers, or a host of other now-injured MLB players.
With all due respect, however, Olbermann could not be more wrong, and here are seven reasons why the World Baseball Classic is amazing.
Reason 1: Players Get Exposure on the World Stage
For those who don’t follow international baseball, the World Baseball Classic is a top-notch primer. Never watched Team Panama at 2 a.m.? Unfamiliar with Team Korea? Want to learn more about Team Isreal? There’s no time like the present!
Add to that the stories of individual players.
Here’s Roki Sasaki (“The Monster of the Reiwa Era”) whose pitching for Japan put the world on notice that the 21-year-old righty was for real.
Roki Sasaki, 92mph Splitter and 102mph Fastball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/EIf8bh6Qdf
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 21, 2023
“It’s hard to explain his talent,” manager Hideki Kuriyama said, “but to me, it’s like he’s pitching his soul, not a baseball.”
What about one of the new members of the Boston Red Sox, Masataka Yoshida, who made his mark by hitting a game-tying home run when Japan faced elimination against Team Mexico?
The list goes on.
Meanwhile, American players were also building their international reputations.
For example, Lars Nootbaar developed a serious fanbase in Japan, joining that team because his mother was born and raised there — and Shohei Ohtani recruited him. (Sorry, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, you may get all the accolades in St. Louis, but Lars Nootbaar earned both a WBC championship and an international following.)
Consider Seattle Mariners prospect Harry Ford, whose home runs have made him a celebrity among British youngsters.
Then there were lesser-known players like Alan Trejo, the shortstop for Team Mexico. Trejo has been mostly lost on a disorganized Colorado Rockies roster, but the WBC placed him on the world stage, perhaps creating opportunities for him.
Yu Chang, who is trying to make the Boston Red Sox roster, provided another example. Chang played for Chinese Taipei in the WBC, hitting a grand slam home run in their game against Italy.
One thing I learned while watching the World Baseball Classic is that I don’t follow international baseball closely enough. It’s an oversight I intend to correct.
Reason 2: Good Players on Bad Teams
Get to Play Meaningful Baseball
Let’s focus on the most obvious examples: Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.
Two of MLB’s greatest players are stuck on the marginal Los Angeles Angels, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. In the World Baseball Classic, Ohtani and Trout were playing meaningful baseball for the entire world.
Everything came down to a dramatic moment in the ninth inning of the U.S.-Japan championship game. Ohtani, working from the bullpen for the first time since 2016, came in to close the game and face his teammate in a moment of baseball history.
Trout vs Ohtani lived up to the HYPE! #WorldBaseballClassic pic.twitter.com/Z8aZAjpDRg
— World Baseball Classic (@WBCBaseball) March 22, 2023
Ohtani won this one, but it was an important moment for baseball.
It seems like hyperbole to say that was one of most important PA in baseball history, but.. it was. Two of the best-ever talents, in their first matchup, with the title on the line, blasting 102 & nasty spin, to end the WBC that we might look back on as The One that launched it.
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) March 22, 2023
Reader, it does not get better than that, and let us all be grateful to the baseball gods that we got to witness it.
Reason 3: Players Get to Represent Their Home Countries
There are so many examples.
Take, for instance, Roenis Elías, a relief pitcher trying to find a place in the Chicago Cubs bullpen. A native of Guantánamo, Elías dreamed of playing for Cuba. “I always wanted to play in the Clasico,” Elías said. In the World Baseball Classic, he got to do that.
Here’s Adam Wainwright:
"We're playing because we love this game, we love this country. That's a great feeling, man. I'm so proud to be out here." 🇺🇸
Adam Wainwright joined @Ken_Rosenthal after earning the win for @USABaseball to secure a spot in the WBC Championship! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/8ZTE63WQEq
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 20, 2023
And Francisco Lindor: “We all care for each other and no one wants to get hurt… But we all love our countries and want to represent our countries… We have an opportunity to represent our countries and learn from our peers. It’s amazing.”
For Freddie Freeman playing for Team Canada allowed him to honor his parents, especially his late mother.
And as Julio Rodríguez said of a stacked Dominican Republic team, “It’s no secret how important baseball is in this part of the world.”
Just how stacked is the Dominican Republic’s WBC roster? 🇩🇴 @thejrodshow #baseball #dominicanrepublic #worldbaseballclassic #mlb #mlbtheshow
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Baseball is a global sport made up of players from varying backgrounds and circumstances with different motivations. The World Baseball Classic reiterated that key point.
Reason 4: The Stories (Like Baseball Itself) Are Amazing
Probably my favorite example was the Czech Republic Team, which stepped into the U.S. spotlight after a New York Times story (“Can a Czech Firefighter Compete with MLB’s Biggest Stars?”). It was the Czech team’s first time qualifying for the WBC, and it did so with a homegrown lineup — no baseball mercenaries. “In over 30 years of scouting, it’s the most remarkable achievement I’ve seen by a small country to qualify for the W.B.C.,” said Gene Grimaldi, an international scout, who now works for the Philadelphia Phillies. “In terms of development, what they have done is really unbelievable in the history of baseball.”
Although Japan went on to defeat the Czech Republic 10-2, there was an epic moment when pitcher/electrician Ondrej Satoria struck out Ohtani. (Satoria’s fastball topped out at 79 mph.)
Actually, if you’re Satoria, and you’ve just struck out the greatest baseball player in the world, you deserve to have your big moment memorialized.
Ondrej Satoria is an electrician in the Czech Republic, imagine how much clout he's gonna have with his coworkers when they see him strike out Shohei Ohtani. pic.twitter.com/yM1zteirBu
— Kyle Kishimoto (@kylemoto10) March 11, 2023
Ohtani, in turn, would later show his respect to the Czech Republic team.
Shohei Ohtani is wearing a Czech Republic hat while arriving in Miami for the semifinals
The World Baseball Classic is incredible pic.twitter.com/v7Q2uwUa56
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) March 17, 2023
Game recognizes game.
It was equally great to watch the world become familiar with Randy Arozarena and the story reflected the pride he felt in playing for Mexico. When his moments came, he did not miss.
Can we please just watch this guy play baseball every day please my word pic.twitter.com/vSiWi1H6E2
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 21, 2023
In case his stellar defense and fan interaction weren’t enough, Arozarena was an offensive force, slashing .450/.607/.900 — and occasionally donning his trademark cowboy boots and a sombrero for some extra flair.
A recent (and justifiable) complaint about baseball is that it doesn’t know how to market its stars. The World Baseball Classic showed that baseball has tremendous star power when players are given the space to express themselves.
Reason 5: The WBC Reshuffles Fandom
I was fortunate to be in Arizona to take in some Spring Training as well as a World Baseball Classic game. Before the U.S. played Great Britain, I was in downtown Phoenix getting dinner, and it was thumping. Fans were everywhere, and they were excited. As I was watching fans come and go, and then as I walked to Chase Field, I noticed the sea of jerseys: Mookie Betts (Red Sox and Dodgers), Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado (Rockies and Cardinals), Kyle Schwarber (Cubs and Phillies); Manny Machado, Julio Rodríguez — the list goes on.
But what struck me was the sense to which all our fan allegiances had changed — at least for the moment. Betts wasn’t with the Red Sox or Dodgers this time because he was on Team USA, and those fans wearing Rodriguez jerseys were also invested in the Dominican Republic team. As a fan, I appreciated having my old loyalties challenged.
Fandom can be siloing. The WBC defied that.
Broadcaster Tyler Maun did the play-by-play in Taichung, Taiwan, for Pool A. Here he is enjoying the U.S.-Japan championship game and illustrating the ways in which baseball can bring fans together.
This will be the lingering memory of my WBC experience as a fan. High-fiving and screaming with complete strangers, taking selfies together despite not speaking the same language, watching those girls in front of us sob tears of joy as Japan walked off to the final. Otherworldly.
— Tyler Maun (@TylerMaun) March 22, 2023
It does not get better than that.
Reason 6: The WBC Creates Engagement
The total attendance of the 2023 WBC was 1,306,414, roughly 20% higher than game attendance in 2017. This year’s World Baseball Classic also surpassed previous television-viewing records.
In terms of broadcast numbers, the semifinals on FS1 and Fox Deportes averaged 2.4 million views, an increase of 96% from 2017.
Then there was the online engagement. Ohtani became the first MLB player to cross the 4 million Instagram followers mark, gaining 2 million followers in the course of the WBC. (For comparison, Trout is second with 2 million followers.) Arozarena went from 138,000 Instagram followers to more than 544,000.
Japan may have defeated the U.S. in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, but baseball was the real winner.
"The baseball world won tonight."
USA Manager Mark DeRosa gives his thoughts after the loss to Japan in the 2023 WBC Championship pic.twitter.com/eeZVNsIyc9
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 22, 2023
Anything that raises the profile of baseball is a good thing.
Reason 7: The WBC is Fun
First, in addition to watching some stellar baseball, fans got to experience the rich baseball cultures of other countries. For example, check out the Tokyo Dome.
Electric atmosphere at the Tokyo Dome.⚡️ pic.twitter.com/C2LIAFy1G3
— MLB (@MLB) March 9, 2023
But the fans weren’t the only ones having a good time: So did the players. Betts was clear: The WBC was better than spring training.
I asked Mookie Betts if he thinks the WBC are just a "meaningless exhibition games" ? pic.twitter.com/KQcX1HVfca
— Jennifer Mercedes (@Chica_Deportes) March 19, 2023
And if that’s not enough, let’s hear from Captain America himself:
It’s hard to sum up into words what these last couple of weeks have meant to me. I had the time of my life representing that USA on my chest! The energy was electric and made the WBC a moment I’ll always cherish. So thank you all so much. It was an honor to be your captain. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/V5TOEaKpu7
— Mike Trout (@MikeTrout) March 22, 2023
Major League Baseball hopes the World Baseball Classic can come to rival the World Cup. We’ll see what happens in 2026 when the WBC will turn 20, but there’s no reason to think it won’t be amazing.
Feel free to boycott, Keith Olbermann. The rest of us are going to enjoy some epic baseball.
Featured image by Chris Corr (@Chris_Studios on Twitter).
Good article. I agree with all your points.
Fundamentally, I don’t see how the WBC is any more meaningless than the regular baseball season. I don’t watch baseball because the World Series has some extraordinary value to society or to me. It’s arguable that the WBC is more valuable, than a season’s worth of games, followed by nutty playoffs, all played to make money and magnify egos.