What the WBC Has Been and Could Be

The WBC has been good so far, but it could be so much better. (via Ken Nejima)

The WBC has been good so far, but it could be so much better. (via Ken Nejima)

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) should, ostensibly, be important. It’s a huge tournament that occurs only once every four years and features some of the best Major League Baseball talents and national stars, all competing to best represent their country. The preliminary rounds take place throughout the world, which theoretically should make them more accessible to a wider audience, and a number of MLB’s greatest international talents first gained fame on the Classic’s stage.

So why is it nearly impossible to find in-depth information on the WBC? What is the fate of the World Baseball Classic beyond 2017? Would changes to the tournament give it greater success, and is it even worthwhile to implement those changes? Why have they considered ending the WBC after this year?

To begin to grapple with these questions we must understand the basic structure of the WBC, and we must look back at the state of baseball over a decade ago, when the WBC was first announced.

In 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to end baseball and softball in the Olympics, effective immediately following the conclusion of the 2008 Summer Games. In May of that same year, then-commissioner Bud Selig announced the start of the World Baseball Classic, which had been in the works for two years and which would debut in 2006. The WBC would debut in 2006, with teams participating on an invitational basis.

According to a deeply archived press release from Dec. 5, 2005, the WBC would offer fans around the world the opportunity to “see baseball in an exciting and compelling new format.” Its primary objective was to engage new players and new fans, and to “pay tribute to the tremendous growth and internationalization of the game.”

The WBC was established by MLB, in conjunction with the MLB Players Association, and sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), and other unnamed professional leagues around the world. According to the Baseball-Reference page, the World Baseball Classic had been anticipated to debut in 2005, but do to challenges with all these sanctions it was delayed until 2006.

Team owners objected to the injury risks for their star players, while the union debated less strict drug testing. These issues ultimately were resolved by way of a compromise on drug testing, and an agreement to take on insurance for players’ contracts, in exchange for prohibiting teams from directly disallowing their players to participate. There were also conflicts with the NPB and its players association regarding scheduling and representation, which were finally resolved after a four-month negotiation period. After all these negotiations, Japan went on to win the WBC in both 2006 and 2009.

The format of the WBC has evolved slightly each time since its inception. Most notably, after the first year of the championship, organizers ceased simply to invite teams to participate and instead made the process more inclusive with a series of qualifying tournaments, as well as guaranteed qualifying spots for each of the top three teams within each pool. Initially there was a three-year separation between each World Baseball Classic, but with the removal of baseball from the Olympics this was changed following the 2009 competition so it occurs every four years.

The locations for the tournaments vary, though each of the championship rounds has been held at an MLB stadium in California. This year, the two major changes revolve around on-field play rather than the broader tournament formation. After the 11th inning, runners automatically will be placed on first and second base, and now teams can also designate ten pitchers to be a part of their “pitching pool,” which extends beyond the normal roster and allows team managers to call upon these other players to bolster their rotation during the tournament.

The World Baseball Classic began as a way to grow baseball internationally, one of the larger endeavors MLB’s international division has taken on, and yet its place in the professional sports zeitgeist is relatively ambiguous. It is surprisingly difficult to find detailed information about its albeit brief history, or much of anything beyond results, predictions, and internet debates about the preservation of player health and safety. In a dismal turn of events, Wikipedia serves as the most exhaustive source of information about the World Baseball Classic, and even there many of the cited links are broken, or take you to a 404 error page.

The WBC website itself is vibrant, filled with intriguingly titled pieces on teams and individual players, never-ending ways to “connect” with the tournament, and a pithy note in the top right corner, beneath the language options, that reads, “Baseball spoken here.” But within all that there is no “About” section, nor is there an FAQ, or anything else that could remotely provide site visitors with information about this absurdly mysterious world championship.

This lack of information, while maddening in some circumstances, is also indicative of the fundamental goals upon which the WBC was founded. Its purpose is to expand the sport beyond its traditional borders, to people and to regions who may not have ever seen a game. But unlike MLB’s colonialist establishment of academies in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries, the WBC does not aim to insert itself into other countries. The purpose of the WBC is arguably more benign; organizers of the Classic seek to appeal to broader audiences and engage new fans and potential players by appealing to an inherent national pride.

To that end, the World Baseball Classic has been an astounding success. International ratings have been consistently excellent since early on, as evidenced by the fact that in 2013 one third of all TVs in Japan were tuned to the first three rounds of the WBC, which was a higher percentage than those who watched the 2012 Olympics.

The tournament itself also has been profitable since its inception, and the funds the WBC has generated have been dispersed to baseball organizations throughout the world. There are also direct correlations between team success in the WBC and growth of baseball within the home countries. An article in Baseball America cites Korea as a prime example of this. The Korean team was a finalist in 2006 and 2009, and subsequently there has been a noticeable increase in Korean players in MLB.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There are, of course, a number of problems with the World Baseball Classic, which its detractors are quick to point out. Concern over injuries is a prominent source of disagreement and arguably one of the more legitimate complaints. When it comes to responding to injury concerns, there really is no appeasing answer. Baseball takes a physical toll on the body, particularly for pitchers, and so there is always an inherent risk when a player participates in a game.

We tolerate, and even support, that risk during MLB’s regular season, and in the postseason we are even more supportive because that is a player’s job–to play baseball and ultimately help his team to win a championship. For most casual baseball fans, winning the World Baseball Classic doesn’t hold the same cache as winning the World Series.

Instead, these games are considered unnecessary by many and representative of increased risk (of injury) for minimal reward. Some might even argue there is no reward, and subsequently cite Edinson Volquez, Jake Peavy, and Daisuke Matsuzaka as proof of what could so swiftly go wrong. Yet human beings are inherently at risk of injury at any given moment, professional athletes especially so, and it seems particularly odd to single out the WBC with these concerns.

Rather than view the Classic as a superfluous and unnecessary endeavor for MLB players, we should view it in a similar way that we view the Latin American winter leagues. MLB players’ participation in these leagues also met similar fan and organizational resistance early on, but they are now generally regarded with support and respect for the leagues. Or, as Bud Selig put it more succinctly, the WBC “is a time to put the best interests of the game ahead of your own provincial self-interest.”

Popular opinion about this world championship tournament will not change rapidly, so in the meantime, we should think about changing the way we view it. It’s easy to designate the WBC as a failure based upon its extensive shortcomings within the U.S. market, which is why there were dozens of rumors about its impending cancellation in November of 2016.

It frequently has been suggested that the WBC change its structure to improve the popularity of the Classic. Sure, it might attract a greater American viewing audience if it was played in November, following the World Series, and sure, it might be more popular for U.S. fans if Team USA featured bigger names.

Yet that’s the thing; these suggestions largely stem from Americans–namely, Americans who are already baseball fans. The World Baseball Classic is not meant to be marketed for American baseball fans, nor is it designed to demonstrate the superiority of baseball in the United States.

If the WBC offers anything specifically to American fans, it is a reminder that baseball is no longer an exclusively American game. As Paul Archey, former senior MLB vice president of international operations, has said, “[MLB] didn’t create this event for the United States. It wasn’t for baseball to be more popular here. It was to give baseball a global platform.”

References & Resources

Isabelle Minasian is the Digital Content Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Before she spent her days creating and sharing baseball nonsense in Cooperstown she did so in Seattle, where she wrote for Lookout Landing, La Vida Baseball and, clearly, The Hardball Times. Follow her on Twitter @95coffeespoons.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

I want the WBC to be popular in the US and I offer a suggestion–on its face a batting practice fastball.

I don’t know the international players; I want to. MLB.TV fills the winter hours with relentless talking heads and bee-drone guessing about future events. How about the house-organ MLB.TV give the desk-teams some days off, develop some international-baseball commentators and instead offer to televise the European/Caribbean/Asian Championships? I will even view those on many-months tape delay.

6 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

I agree wholeheartedly with this suggestion.

6 years ago

But for the WBC to have any credibility at all, the US must be competitive deep into the tourney.

6 years ago

Just nitpicking, but an “About” page does seem to exist on WBC’s website: https://www.worldbaseballclassic.com/info/about. Additionally, a FAQ is displayed as a featured article currently on WBC’s homepage.

Other than that, as a person who only started watching baseball after coming to the U.S. five years ago, I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. Very much like the recently published articles of an “All-World Baseball Team” by Adam Dorhauer, which includes players who had never had the opportunity to play for an MLB team, a global perspective is important in baseball. And what is what makes WBC unique.

6 years ago

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Frank Jackson
6 years ago

One of the things I enjoy about the WBC is finding out where the players are from. A case in point: Freddie Freeman playing for Team Canada. I didn’t know he was Canadian…not that there’s anything wrong with that. Turns out he was born in the US but his parents were from Canada, so he has dual citizenship. An interesting tidbit, doesn’t mean anything, but without the WBC, I wouldn’t know about it.

chris weber
6 years ago

im a baseball addict and this should start shortly after the world series to fill that baseball gap and they will be no pitch counts set on the pitchers then making better games

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