The World Baseball Classic Showed The Sport Where To Find Its Joy
9:02 AM EDT on March 22, 2023
Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout brought the World Baseball Classic to its most delightful denouement last night, in a showdown between the only two men positioned properly to force the Los Angeles Angels to stop being what they are. It took an unconventional format more associated with international soccer and a tournament suited best to the artistic temperaments of the non-American teams to get to that moment, but by the time it all came to its ridiculously clichéd conclusion the whole endeavor mostly felt governed by fate. It ended with a swing and a miss by Trout on a 3-2 hell-slider from Ohtani to give Japan the championship it so richly deserved. The final score was 3-2, for all that mattered.
It was a glorious end to a triumphant event, one which showed that baseball does not necessarily need to feel like the time-and-fun suck it has otherwise become when played and watched joyfully. What worked about it was neither a repudiation nor an affirmation of the game's new rules or the shift or a pitch clock, and had nothing to do with making a game that would have taken 203 minutes take 189. So much of the conversation about baseball has been dedicated to fixing what’s supposed to be broken about it that it has become entirely too easy to forget that the more fundamental stuff about the game has always worked. Even before Trout and Ohtani stared each other down, the WBC had served as a reminder that fixing what ails baseball might be more a matter of the people who watch, play, organize, and run the sport making a basic attitudinal change in their own work.
Put simply, baseball isn't a drag because it's too slow or overly mathed or insufficiently vibrant as much as it is that the people who love it have allowed the atmosphere to be dictated by the people who don't. This is why the news that there will be another WBC in 2026 feels two years too distant. In fact, without anyone seeing it coming, this WBC could be the start of what can save baseball from its own crappy self-esteem.
To do this, MLB would have to take the tournament and slap it dead-smack in the middle of everyone's baseball season—right over the All-Star Break, to be precise. Carve three weeks out of a mutually-agreed dead stretch of the season, when everyone is both sufficiently stretched-out and a little bit bored, and just drop it right there. The regular seasons can all be extended earlier and later, or the season could be shortened to, say, 144 games. The tournament that just won raves and ratings can get a broader and more appreciative audience; the big leaguers that would otherwise be playing games 84 through 102 could spend some time with their families, their golf games or their elbow rehab.
And why should this happen, I hear you asking as you take up the empty argument for cheapjack owners who worry about those Tuesday night Marlins at Pirates games than draw 7,191? Easy. Because there's money in fun for those folks smart enough to promote enjoyment for its own sake.
Every argument against the WBC has been built around the ways in which it has inconvenienced owners, as though Stevie Cohen not having Edwin Diaz or Jimmy Crane losing Jose Altuve is the definitive argument against giving more play to an event with global appeal in a sport that has been descending into an increasingly regional-interest wormhole. Nobody ever gets hurt in spring training, after all, and there's nothing wrong with paying a guy not to play when his injury happened on your job site. Now that the regional sports networks are passing their sell-by date, a more global view is demanded if the sport is to avoid becoming a period piece, like boxing or horse racing.
That’s not inevitable unless the owners make it so. The WBC—this WBC, to be sure—has brought an effervescence back to the sport that it has been groping ineffectually to find for years; it might just be that brilliant athletes playing their hearts out for their home countries is more interesting to more people than TV commercials in which Paul Goldschmidt squints and says, “It’s all about the game.” At a time when the sport is willing to change equipment, positioning, pace, and other orthodoxies—and commissioner/throw pillow Rob Manfred said on Tuesday that the new rules will be tweaked in the near future to meet modified exigencies—a potential solution to the search for baseball’s lost joy seems clear.
And it's not like the All-Star Game, which is the highest-profile event that would be bumped by this re-centered WBC, has provided an antidote to the increasingly pewter mood of the people most engaged in the sport. Every year the game’s television ratings are worse than the last, no game has left a lasting impression since interleague play began unless you're counting the mandated tie that brought the event and commissioner Bud Selig into disrepute, and even a Marlins-Pirates four-game series is more useful to the sport than that.
Given how little there is to lose, or even just displace, why not do the bold thing? Why not convene a summit in which all the national leagues sit down and make a joint plan to give a little back on the front end and take the equivalent back with an actual midseason event? Why not notice the best thing about the WBC, which is that everyone engaged in it very obviously enjoyed it and would cheerily do it again as soon as possible? If baseball needs to change, and the people running the sport say that it does, why not start with a schedule alteration that is actually based on pleasure rather than metrics?
And if the only cost to everybody's glee is a little Angel-on-Angel crime—well, who says no to that? After all, that's a more time-honored tradition than nearly anything else baseball has.