Tonight, the first of two semi-final games in the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC) will be held at Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, California, when the Netherlands takes on the 2016 runner-up Puerto Rico. Tomorrow, the United States will attempt to reach its first championship final in the tournament when it faces two-time WBC champion (2006, 2009) Japan.
This is the fourth time the tournament has been played. Held during spring training every four years since 2006, the tournament has received mixed reviews (particularly from those in the United States. We have thus invited Dain TePoel to discuss that topic (and others) in relation to this year’s tournament which will be decided by a winner-take-all showdown between the two semi-final winners on Wednesday night. TePoel is the author of “Pastime or Waste of Time?: Narratives in the Media Surrounding the 2006 World Baseball Classic” in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.
Sport in American History (SAH): Which stories are you paying most attention to in this year’s tournament?
There has been plenty of intrigue in this iteration of the World Baseball Classic (WBC). It’s funny. Across the US sports landscape, there’s a sense of an apologetic from fans who admit they follow the WBC. Of course, the pushback against the WBC has been around since its launch in 2006. The common refrain from the mainstream sports fan and sports journalist is that March means college basketball, NFL free agency, and the sacred rituals of MLB’s Spring Training. For baseball fans, in particular, it’s traditionally a time to take stock of your favorite squad, get to know new faces, and allow the warmth of the sun and fresh air to gradually expand that little bit of hope in your heart that things just might go your team’s way this year. Being asked to carve out some space in there every four years for something claiming to crown a global baseball champion? “That’s just ridiculous,” says the purist fan. I’d argue as far as sports drama goes, however, the WBC has been around long enough (though still in its infancy) to build off storylines from previous tournaments and create new excitement as well. The 2017 version has certainly delivered in that regard.
The early headline-grabber was the surprising run of Team Israel, the last of 16 teams to qualify for the tournament. Comprised mostly of middling or washed-up minor and major-leaguers, they nevertheless opened with three straight upset victories over South Korea (2009 runner-up), the Netherlands (fourth place in 2013), and Taiwan, which usually has a pretty respectable showing. Advancing into the second round undefeated, they moved to 4-0 overall by defeating former powerhouse Cuba (2006 runner-up). Falling in their second meeting with the Netherlands, Israel then couldn’t manufacture a win over Japan (WBC champs in ’06, ’09, and third place in ’13) to stay alive.
What also made their run fascinating was the way it drew attention to the WBC’s flexible eligibility requirements, or “heritage rule.” Under WBC rules, a player may compete for a country if he is eligible for citizenship under its laws. Israel gives automatic citizenship to Jews, their non-Jewish children, grandchildren, and the non-Jewish spouses of those children and grandchildren. So, while MLB all-stars Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler qualified to play for Israel but chose not to, journeymen such as Sam Fuld, Ike Davis, and Craig Breslow did. Joining them was Jason Marquis, a fifteen-year veteran and former major-leaguer, who might have been hoping to earn a look from another MLB team. For some, this is part of the appeal of the WBC. Once the rosters are set, it is still the best possible collection of players that those nations could cobble together under the rules. It has a, “What the heck? Why not!” feel to it, combining something experimental and uncertain yet competitive, generating underdogs, favorites, and some level of parity. For the naysayers, though, such “loose” eligibility requirements are one more reason, of which there seems to be no shortage, to dislike and dismiss the whole thing out of hand.
I’ve also been following the path of Team USA in search of its first-ever WBC gold medal. The on-field excitement has been nothing short of tremendous. Team USA opened with an extra-inning victory against Colombia, but followed that up with a crushing loss to the mighty Dominican Republic, in which the USA blew a late 5-0 lead (captured beautifully by Richard Crepeau). Instead of bowing out, however, Team USA easily dismissed Canada 8-0 to advance out of their pool. The Canadians have not fared well in any of the four WBC’s, and this time failed to win a game.
In the second round, Team USA flipped the script on the meltdown against the DR with an 8th inning rally of their own to surge past a strong Venezuelan squad. They found themselves in a deep hole early in their next game against a very solid Puerto Rican team looking to earn their first WBC title as well. Trailing 6-3 in the top of the 9th, Team USA managed to plate two runs but came up short, forcing an elimination game and rematch with the DR last Saturday night. Again, for the USA, this game seemed to have it all: an early deficit, a game-tying laser-shot of a homerun from Giancarlo Stanton, and another nail-biting ride through the bullpen. But this time, Adam Jones robbed a homerun in the 7th and Andrew McCutchen smacked a clutch two-run double in the 8th to secure the victory. Having knocked out the defending champs, Team USA will have to go through two-time champions Japan to even make it to the gold medal game.
With Team USA, though, there’s always a “Yeah, but.” From the get-go, every time the WBC rolls around they can’t escape the onus of fielding what critics, fans, and pundits deem as some sort of B-squad. There’s certainly a case to be made for that again this year with the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper sitting it out, not to mention a Murderer’s Row pitching lineup of names such as Kershaw, Syndergaard, Bumgarner, and Verlander choosing their day jobs over the WBC. On top of the A-list of no-shows, the notion is regularly trotted out that the US players who are on the roster just don’t care as much as about this tournament as the teams from Central America, South America, and Asia. The “Americans” just don’t have the “passion” or “flamboyance” or “flair.” (More on these themes later.) Oddly enough, though, pitcher Chris Archer came out with a strong patriotic statement about how he hoped Team USA could use the WBC as an opportunity to unite the country, and he has more or less been excused from the team after returning to the Tampa Bay Rays for a tune-up! Certainly, this team has shown more gumption than its predecessors, but, I think the politics of style, passion, and celebration at the WBC has little to do with how well a given team does in the tournament.
SAH: You have published on the WBC and the media narratives surrounding the tournament, particularly in the United States. How has the event been generally received by the media in its short existence?
You are correct to note that my understanding of the media narratives is really from what’s been published or posted in the United States. From an academic standpoint, I can’t really speak to what’s coming out of Tokyo, Seoul, Havana, or Santo Domingo, but as a fan, I gather that the interest in the WBC is much more intense outside the US, and I imagine the media narratives would reflect that. From the US perspective, though, I read hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about the first classic in 2006, and for the 2009 WBC, I supplemented my analysis of the press coverage of the tournament with a focus on how MLB was promoting and advertising the Classic. I barely followed the WBC in 2013, and was disappointed at how difficult it was to do so since the tournament was no longer being carried on ESPN (except for ESPN Deportes). I didn’t even have much luck finding a radio stream online. Similarly, here in 2017, I don’t have MLB Network or MLB.tv, and I’ve pretty much been limited to checking scores and perusing articles to keep up with what’s going on.
But to answer the question, the US media did not exactly greet the WBC with a warm embrace after it was announced in July 2005. There are always exceptions, but overall, I found the tone of coverage to be quite negative, almost as if many of the sports journalists were simply annoyed they were being asked to write about it. So, when they did, they looked at it and said, “Okay, what’s going on here? The format and structure of the tournament is strange. We don’t get who is playing who and at what time. We don’t understand the rule changes and tiebreaker scenarios and pitch limits and eligibility. The biggest MLB stars are backing out of it. The players aren’t ready to compete like this in March, anyway. They’re going to get hurt. They should be focusing on their teams and trying to win the World Series. You can’t decide a world champion in baseball in a handful of games. This is silly. All the other countries seem to be more into it.”
In other words, the narrative really minimized and trivialized the WBC and reaffirmed baseball’s longstanding American exceptionalist rhetoric. It seemed significant to then-Commissioner Bud Selig and his hopes to globalize the MLB product, and with baseball and softball being cut from the Olympics around that time, it made sense to the journalists from a business standpoint to keep the game on the radar internationally. But for the sake of covering the event as a competition and something of note in the sports world, it just wasn’t being taken very seriously. “Real” baseball still seemed to equal Major League Baseball.
I think the fact that the USA didn’t make it to the medal round in the first Classic helped shift attitudes a little bit from dismissive to hesitantly lukewarm. Instead of ridiculing the WBC, the narrative became, “Since the WBC doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, how do we fix this in a way that restores and reaffirms the United States’ rightful place as kings of baseball?” To me, this viewpoint was articulated most clearly by Jayson Stark of ESPN, who wrote first and foremost, “We need to get the good old USA on board here.” Again, it’s like the WBC was meaningless unless Team USA was shining at the end. The successes of Japan, Cuba, South Korea, and the surprise of the Netherlands in those first two tournaments was sort of shrugged aside, or interestingly, used to point out how the US had “lost” its hegemony on baseball worldwide and slipped as a national pastime within the States. Several journalists noted how the Asian teams seemed to play a cleaner, crisper, better brand of fundamental baseball, and that the Latin American teams’ passion and love for the game was on full display in comparison to an apathetic audience in the US. The general tone had changed from cynically dismissing the WBC to one that, at least in some circles, felt like it was missing out on something.
I haven’t researched the narratives from the 2013 WBC at all, other than to note that the DR finally dominated and that the US had another poor showing. But, I have been following the updates of the current tournament. Anecdotally, it seems to me that not much has changed in the US media’s overall reception of the WBC. The same complaints are everywhere about the tournament’s legitimacy, lack of interest, poor timing, and confusing structure. There is almost no buzz or buildup to the tournament, and the media narratives continue to belittle non-US countries for their fervor and celebration in comparison with a “respectable” Team USA. But, there are signs of life. Crepeau’s piece that I mentioned earlier presents an alternative view that has always been present, if not overly popular among mainstream US fans, who are generally constructed as older, white, and male. The New York Times has published a lot of the more optimistic articles that I’ve read about the WBC, including this one by Billy Witz, who writes that if MLB wants to engage fans again, “Why not just make the game more like the WBC?” Now, that perspective also may be a bit over-simplified and missing out on the ways the WBC reproduces some troubling power relationships, but the excitement is a lot higher than at a lot of games between April and September on the MLB schedule.
SAH: Baseball (and softball) is not an Olympic sport (they are coming back in Tokyo in 2020). Yet, MLB, and baseball in general, has been trying to expand globally over the past few decades. How does the WBC fit into that strategy? How successful do you think it has been?
It appears the WBC has been a central part of that strategy, and by some accounts, they have done quite well at getting their products and merchandise into new markets. But, it really depends on how “expanding globally” is framed, whether we are talking about baseball as a game growing across the globe, or an increase in MLB’s profits and control of organized baseball worldwide. Several argue that MLB would be better off by supporting competing professional leagues in Asia and Latin America rather than trying to stake a claim as the one and only professional league that fans should care about. Decimating the once-strong professional leagues and winter circuits in Central America and Latin America isn’t helping to maintain interest in baseball. Siphoning players from Japan and South Korea to MLB also may not help Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organization thrive.
In the 2017 WBC, ticket sales are up 34% over 2013, and TV viewership for the USA-DR elimination game on March 18th was up 11% over MLB Network’s previous record for a WBC game. One of Japan’s earlier games set a TV viewership record as well. I’d be interested in research that shows how the WBC is doing from a social media perspective as well. But as a long-term strategy, I don’t see how the WBC helps baseball or MLB truly grow as a one-off tournament every four years. Baseball and MLB will grow if baseball does well independently in those other nations.
SAH: The WBC exposes narratives of transnationalism, colonialism, and internationalism in baseball. For readers, which books/articles would you recommend on these topics?
Despite the lack of fan engagement, the WBC presents a great opportunity for scholars to study and learn more about how the WBC reflects anxieties, tensions, and contradictions around the themes you mention in this question. When the economy collapsed in 2008-2009, a lot of negativity surrounded the WBC for its globalization and cosmopolitanism, similar to the “America First” type rhetoric we hear nowadays.
While I haven’t been researching the WBC lately, I recommend a lot of the work by Alan Klein on the subject, such as Growing the Game, Dominican Baseball, and an article based on his research of Major League Baseball International’s efforts to globalize MLB through the WBC. Robert Elias and George Gmelch also have some spot-on analysis of the WBC. For considerations of transnationalism, colonialism, and internationalism in baseball, works by Adrian Burgos, Jr., Yu-Kuei Sun, Andrew Morris, Jeremy W. Howell, and Jerry W. Lee proved very useful for me as well.
SAH: If you could, what changes would you make to the WBC?
It really should be moved to the summer. Interrupt the MLB season for a few weeks once every four years and let the players have at it at full-strength. Do away with the pitch counts and other odd in-game rules. Make the tiebreakers more applicable. Shine a spotlight on this thing during a less hectic time on the sports calendar in those dog days of summer. And perhaps most importantly, get more input and collaboration on the organization and structure of the tournament with Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, etc. It has always been MLB’s creation, but for the WBC to continue to develop I think power needs to be shared multi-laterally. It will be interesting to see what happens with the re-inclusion of baseball and softball in the Olympics.
Dain TePoel is a doctoral candidate specializing in Sport Studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He received an M.A. in Sport Humanities from Ohio State University. His research interests include intersections between sport, the body, and environmental justice, as well as feminist and anti-racist critiques of inequality and discrimination in the production/consumption of sport media. His dissertation project situates transcontinental walks as a form of physical endurance and examines their relationship to activism and social movements. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DainTePoel