Baseball Fan to America: This Ain’t No Exhibition

Edwin Diaz tore his knee celebrating an exhibition.

Around America, this is the sentiment thrown around about an unfortunate incident immediately following the Puerto Rico national baseball team’s upset win against the Dominican Republic to move on to the quarterfinals. During the celebration, Diaz landed on his right knee and tore his patellar tendon.

Just like that, out for the 2023 season.

Others have used it to push an agenda that didn’t suddenly appear out of thin air for many: the World Baseball Classic is meaningless. A league that spends billions on player revenue doesn’t need its players playing in something that “doesn’t matter” to the elite class of baseball.

Sure, if you want to believe that as a fan of Major League Baseball, you can believe that. Other than the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, Americans are conditioned to believe that no other international sports tournament matters. There’s an argument that the WBC shouldn’t be played in the middle of Spring Training, a time for players to ramp up. Adding an atmosphere greater than some World Series while players are not even close to 100 percent doesn’t behoove anyone. There’s another argument that it shouldn’t have been played just before a season with new rules that are expected to revolutionize the sport and take time to get used to. Those are reasonable arguments that will be discussed.

Featured image: Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

My issue resides in the general notion that the World Baseball Classic doesn’t matter, that it’s nothing but a glorified exhibition contracted by MLB for nothing but financial gains (which, in a capitalist world, is nothing because everything is done in some part for the good ol’ U.S. dollar). For most of the players, fans, and even the governments of the teams that play in the WBC — four of them playing in qualifying tournaments months beforehand, that’s not the case.

For every other baseball-hungry country in the world, the World Baseball Classic is more than just an exhibition. It is a culture, the countrymen’s heritage, a way of life. It is the only professional international baseball tournament in the world (other than the WBSC Premier12, also sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation) that allows the best ballplayers in the world to represent their country, and the only one that grants the winner the official title of “World Champion”. Many players, including Yadier Molina in 2017, many different players across teams recently, and multiple United States players have enjoyed playing in the tournament and have said that the WBC means as much, if not more, to them than the Commissioner’s Trophy. Many fans would tend to agree.

To denounce an entire tournament that means so much because some people in the United States don’t “care” is appalling. To use a freak accident (and Freddie Freeman’s minor hamstring injury) to say that it should be abolished or limited is abhorrent.

Consider this: if there is no other time for the WBC — or any high-stakes international tournament — what exactly are baseball players doing other than getting ready for the upcoming MLB season? Playing arguably the same quality of baseball when the month is all said and done.

Except for spring trainings that precede major rule changes like this year, there is almost no purpose for the games for major league stars. What does Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani need to do in a spring training game against the Tigers or the White Sox, where it’s possible they will take most of their at-bats against pitchers with 60 professional innings, all below Double-A? Why are approximately 30 low-stake games for a player more important than seven to eight World Series-like games? More importantly: why is it a throwaway topic when, by the end of spring training, five players on a roster aren’t ready for Opening Day for nagging injuries, but when one player has a nagging injury in an international tournament, it’s a problem?

Tzu Wei Lin #5 of Chinese Taipei hit a solo home run at the bottom of the 1st inning during the World Baseball Classic Pool A game between Italy and Chinese Taipei at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium on March 10, 2023 in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo by Kenny Hsu – CaptureAt/Getty Images)

While spring training — emphasis on the word training — as a concept itself is important for players, having an entire month of games — real exhibitions, by the way — in Florida and Arizona benefits no one but the many minor league players that especially need it as they work their way to the big leagues. For that reason alone, the games should exist, but other than injury concerns, there is no other purpose for having so many games for the stars. In an era of sports where injuries are a daily threat, a season for any player or organization is at risk regardless.

Additionally, Japan has its own professional baseball league: Nippon Professional Baseball. Korea has its own professional league: the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) League. Both leagues play in the same time frame that MLB has its regular season, and their spring training exists from February to March.

Yet, the same takes about injuries in the tournament, the tournament itself being the fault for injuries, or having a high-pressure tournament in the middle of training don’t exist. They send out their best talent without hesitation, and, when baseball is on the Olympics program, will pause their seasons so that everyone can play in the tournament (similar to how the NHL, a league with quite a bit of international pedigree on its rosters, pauses its season during the Winter Olympics) Why? Because they care, to the point where it almost (figuratively) started a war between the two countries.

Before the start of the tournament, 36 million people tuned in to watch Samurai Japan — the name given to the country’s national baseball team — in an exhibition game. 62.3 million viewers across the globe watched South Korea versus Japan this past week; 44% of households from Japan, 11% from South Korea. Hell, the 2017 WBC had a 32 percent increase from the 2013 edition.

Yet, I’m supposed to believe that this doesn’t matter because a certain sector of the United States population doesn’t.

Speaking of which, MLB is heavily responsible for the tournament to grow the game into a global product, similar to the other three major sports’ efforts. Playing games in countries like England, France, and Australia is a start to the growth, as is the spurt of international stars that play Major League Baseball, but the WBC is important to that effort as well.

Featured image: Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Before qualifying for the first time in 2017, Israel had just one baseball field in the nation, according to Ryan Lavarnway. Now it’s one of the heaviest-growing sports in Israel and will host the 2025 European Championships. The tournament should be a help to other nations that qualify as well. Fans got to watch two nations not necessarily known for baseball — Great Britain and the Czech Republic —not only qualify and play in this great tournament for the first time ever but win games and qualify for the 2026 edition.

It may not seem like much to us, but these are building blocks for citizens of a new nation to garner interest in the game.

Perhaps the most exciting moment for the Miami Marlins since the team moved into loanDepot Park in 2012 was Giancarlo Stanton’s chase for 60 home runs in 2017. On October 1, he came into the final game of the season just one home run away from becoming the first player since Barry Bonds (at the time) to hit 60 home runs in a single season.

The attendance for that game? 25,222. The other two games in that final three-game series didn’t do much better either. Is that the best example given the Marlins’ struggles to draw attendance that goes back to the franchise’s inception in 1993? Probably not.

But seeing loanDepot Park in a different light, with baseball fans — let’s say, approximately 37,500 fans to watch the United States face the Dominican Republic in 2017 — across the globe gathered, celebrating their culture and heritage with each other at the ballpark? That’s fun. The great product on the field given by players that want to be there helps, but is almost secondary in this case.

That’s what we have seen so far in the two weeks and the four previous editions of the World Baseball Classic: 20,000 to 50,000 fans packed into the ballpark, cheering on the best their nation has to give them, giving USA fans a different light, a different feel of a game that has lost a bit of its touch in the place that used to call the beautiful game its “national pastime”.

The Netherlands team celebrates its World Baseball Classic-opening 4-2 victory over Cuba in a Group A game Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo via AP Photo/I-Hwa Cheng)

That doesn’t even consider what the ballpark will look like once the Cuban National Team plays its first-ever game in Miami on Sunday.

Whether a player wants to play in an international tournament or not is up to them. There is no blame on them for their decision. However, the players, the many fans that tune in and attend the games, Major League Baseball, other professional leagues, and the governments of these countries have spoken: the World Baseball Classic is not going anywhere. There are countries that want this, like Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and then there are places that need this, like Israel, the Czech Republic, and, contrary to popular belief, the United States.

Other baseball cultures across the globe don’t have to be cut off because of spoiled MLB owners and fans. The World Baseball Classic is here to stay, to try and match the importance of the FIFA World Cup, whether it includes the best of the United States or not, and it’s about time that we, as baseball fans in America, get familiar.

Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14). The Dominican Republic lost, so now he’s just rooting for the best baseball possible.

Payton Ellison

Payton Malloy Ellison is a recent graduate from SUNY New Paltz with a degree in journalism. He has been writing his entire life, and about sports in various genres and settings for five years, starting with monthly coverage for the NBA and Major League Baseball on Grrindtime. He has been the Managing Editor for Diamond Digest for two years, written and edited articles produced live content and assisted in growing the brand for four years. He has also served as the sports director for the New Paltz campus radio station, WFNP The Edge, and had provided play-by-play and color commentary for SUNY New Paltz basketball.

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