1972. 1980. 1987. 1998. 2010.
If you’re a hockey fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you’re a baseball fan, 2023 might be one of those years.
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) has captured the attention and imagination of countless baseball fans from around the world, with record-breaking crowds watching both in-person and on television.
And they were treated to some of the most-electrifying baseball they have seen in a long time, capped off by an incredible gold medal game between the United States and Japan.
Even if it didn’t have two of the game’s best (who happen to be Major League Baseball teammates with the Los Angeles Angels) in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani going head-to-head in the final out of the championship game, it was bound to be the most-watched baseball game ever.
The fact that they gave fans a treat with one of the most memorable games was icing on the cake for a tournament that might change the face of international baseball for generations to come.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
It’s been dubbed by some as the “Super Bowl of Baseball” when it comes to television viewing, and it appears the numbers support that claim.
Even before the U.S. and Japan met up, the World Baseball Classic was a massive win for the sport.
The international appeal of watching your favourite country participate was obvious in the television audiences.
In Puerto Rico, 61% of televisions were tuned in to a round-robin game against the Dominican Republic.
In Japan, 93% of TVs were tuned in to the semi-final against Mexico.
As I write this, we haven’t heard the official ratings for the U.S.-Japan final, but I can only imagine how many televisions and mobile devices were broadcasting the action.
If the game of baseball and MLB’s best wanted exposure on a worldwide basis, they certainly received it.
It was easy for people to start picking on the potential flaws of the World Baseball Classic.
The timing wasn’t great, as starting pitchers, for example, were just getting into their usual spring cadence and were likely not giving it everything they had for fear of getting hurt.
You also had several key players not taking part, including reigning American League MVP Aaron Judge, so you couldn’t really call it “best vs. best.”
Adding further fuel to the anti-WBC crowd were the injuries of three big-name players: Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman and Canadian Freddie Freeman, New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz and Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve.
You had sports media personalities like Keith Olbermann calling for the WBC to be called off entirely, as it “is a meaningless exhibition series designed to: get YOU to buy another uniform, to hell with the real season, and split up teammates based on where their grandmothers got laid.”
And who knows? Maybe Olbermann and others were saying what they did just to get a reaction.
Meanwhile, fans of those three MLB teams were also incensed by the lengthy losses of their star players, leading them to ask the “what if it was YOUR guy?” question to boosters of other organizations.
Many dismissed those criticisms. After all, injuries happen in Spring Training as well. “Do we need to cancel Spring Training?” they wondered.
What convolutes the issue even more was the freak nature of Diaz’s injury. It happened during a post-game victory celebration and not during an actual game.
In the aftermath of the injuries, we’ve heard from many players who have said injuries can happen at any time, and the risk is worth the reward.
BETTER THAN A PITCH CLOCK
The one piece to all of this that has seemingly been lost is how the players feel about the World Baseball Classic.
Given the competitiveness of each game (it hasn’t been a Pro Bowl or All-Star Game approach to playing the game) and the sheer emotion, I would say they are big fans as well.
It’s clear they have enjoyed playing in front of energic crowds, representing their respective countries, and playing in what they feel is meaningful baseball, which isn’t something you normally hear in March.
These athletes are usually eased into playing games, suiting up for an inning or two for the first few weeks of Spring Training, letting the prospects take the majority of the reps.
Now they’re getting the chance to dive right in, do what they love to do, in a setting that many haven’t had the chance to do in a long time: the international stage.
Many are also basking in the glow of doing something that Major League Baseball has grappled with doing over the last number of years: attracting new fans.
While MLB has been trotting out things like a pitch clock and bigger bases, it’s easy to tell that none of those moves will inspire the next generation of baseball players like the World Baseball Classic has.
WHAT A STORY
Speaking of inspiring, the WBC also brought out an incredible number of stories about the teams and players involved.
If there’s one thing you’ve heard me say, time and time again, it’s that I believe in “if you can see it, you can be it.”
It was hard not to get amped up listening to former Calgary Cannon and Mexico manager Benji Gil talk about what the tournament meant to his home country, even in the face of a loss.
You had a Great Britain team that won a game, a major step as baseball continues to grow there with events like the MLB London Series.
Where else are you going to hear about an electrician not juist suiting up for his home country in an international tournament like the WBC, but coming in to a game to strike out one of the greatest players in the game, as Ondrej Satoria did to Ohtani during the round-robin?
Even here in Canada, how could you not cheer (and maybe shed a tear) after Adam Loewen struck out the final batter he faced, after dealing with the recent death of his wife?
And then you had long-time Baseball Canada hurler John Axford coming out of retirement to pitch a clean inning against Great Britain, putting a nice exclamation point on a great career that included time with the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Melville Millionaires in 2006 (to which he gave a shout-out to during his post-game interview).
That’s just a sampling of the storylines we were able to enjoy, and that the average fan was able to connect with.
I mean, how can you not be romantic about baseball?
While Canada wasn’t able to make it out of the round robin after finishing with a 2-2 record, the sheer exposure of the team along with the World Baseball Classic as a whole has the potential to be another major step in growing the game north of the 49th parallel.
The Canadian roster managed to pick up two wins in a very challenging pool while missing some big-name players. Without Nick Pivetta, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Romano and Calgary’s Mike Soroka on the mound, and Joey Votto and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. at the dish, things could have been different.
And they might next time around.
What we did end up seeing was eight prospects ranked in the top 100 by MLB Pipeline or in their respective clubs like Edouard Julien, Owen Caissie, Denzel Clarke, Mitch Bratt, and Vauxhall Academy of Baseball product Damiano Palmegiani.
Add that to an impressive list of up-and-comers who are knocking on the MLB door including Vauxhall’s Adam Macko and Dawgs Academy grad Tristan Peters, and Canada’s World Baseball Classic fortunes could be much different in 2026 and beyond.
When you ask a hockey player what it means to wear the maple leaf on the chest at the Olympics, World Junior Hockey Championships, or other major events, you can see how much pride is in their eyes.
Ask any Canadian baseball player like Calgary’s Jordan Procyshen (who served as Canada’s bullpen catcher over the last few weeks) or Stubby Clapp (who helped architect one of the most-memorable moments in Canadian baseball history) what it meant to represent their country on the international stage.
They will tell you what an honour it is, and how they would do it again and again.
Baseball, for whatever reason, has never really had that international flavour where the best faced the best.
As a result, we’ve been missing out on the opportunities of athletes playing for the pride of their country, seeing MLB teammates becoming foes, and inspiring future generations to see that they, too, could play the game on the world’s biggest stage.
As much as some believe the World Series is baseball’s biggest stage, what we saw was an exhibition of truly playing in front of a global audience.
If the last few weeks of the World Baseball Classic has proven anything, it’s that it means something to a lot of people from a variety of baseball and life backgrounds, allowing them to come together into something much bigger than a trophy at the end of another 162-game season.
It’s a good thing for all of baseball, here and abroad.