The 2017 World Baseball Classic is already two days along, old enough to have produced packed stadiums and riveting baseball in Tokyo and Seoul, and old enough to have turned Team Israel, following a pair of opening wins, into the early, loveable underdogs of the tournament — with their Mensch on a Bench mascot and 38-year-old sidearmed pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, who in real life works as the music director for New York’s City Winery.
Whether the WBC will take hold in the United States this month remains to be seen.
This is the fourth installment of the WBC, which, every four years, creates October-like atmospheres in Asia and Latin America. Around Major League clubhouses, though, it is viewed more as an inconvenience that plucks away some of the best players on each team in the middle of spring training, leaving those players’ managers, GMs, teammates and agents to hold their breath until they return in one piece.
The tournament is a shared venture of Major League Baseball and the Players Association, predicated upon the sport’s international scope. More than quarter of MLB players are from countries other than the U.S., and since big leaguers don’t play in the Olympics, the WBC is the only opportunity to see, for example, Manny Machado playing for the Dominican Republic or Miguel Cabrera suiting up for Venezeula.
The WBC’s problem isn’t international growth – it is getting U.S.-based fans on board with the concept. It is a task made infinitely more difficult by the ambivalence of many top American stars, including Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, all of whom declined to join Team USA.
Commissioner Rob Manfred recently pledged to keep the WBC “alive and growing” for as long as he is in the job, but acknowledged the difficulties of marketing the tournament to a domestic audience. It hasn’t helped that Team USA has never finished better than fourth in any of the three previous WBCs.
“I think the key to the WBC’s success is to have the best possible rosters we can have,” Manfred said. “I think we’ve made real progress this time around. The U.S. [market] is always going to be bigger challenge because people have Major League Baseball here. But the one thing that occurs to me is [that] a good performance by the U.S. team would certainly be helpful to the event here in the U.S.”
Team USA plays its first game Friday against Colombia at Marlins Park in Miami, with a highly awaited matchup looming against the Dominican Republic on Saturday. The top two teams from each of the four round-robin pools advance to the second round, with the championship game slated for March 22 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.