As major league teams (and we BSB writers) finally emerge from off-season hibernation, a entire month of spring training games in those two sanguine states of Arizona and Florida offer baseball fans a sneak preview of future prospects, flashes of brilliance from replacement players doing their best to earn a roster spot, and brief glimpses of the well-known stars playing it safe. Tulo occasionally runs the bases, Weiss likes what he sees out of Player X, and Helton is still sobering up after his DUI.
And although there’s an interesting mix of styles and abilities on display during spring training, the lack of shared passion or coordinated team effort or any real desire to win usually makes it all seem a bit individualistic and unfulfilling. Especially in comparison to that surprisingly overlooked and underappreciated phenomenon known as the World Baseball Classic – which just so happens to start today, March 1st!
This will only be the third WBC ever played (the first was in 2006, last one was 2009), plus we’ve had to wait an extra year for it, so this time around it’s gonna taste extra spicy.
With 16 teams competing for a spot in the championship round of four – to be played in San Francisco’s beautiful ballyard – the tournament immediately features some intense first round matchups (Cuba vs. Japan, D.R. vs. Venezuela, Canada vs. USA) as well as some very intriguing, under-the-radar contests (Brazil vs. China, Netherlands vs. Korea, etc.), and even a few Colorado Rockies players are participating.
Team Venezuela will have Carlos Gonzalez (OF), Ramon Hernandez (C), and Jhoulys Chacin (P) playing pivotal roles for the defending bronze medalists. Chacin will have big shoes to fill, as he replaces King Felix Hernandez as the Venezuelan staff ace Will he toe the rubber against the mighty Dominican Republic or perhaps have a chance to shine against the underwhelming lineup from Spain – which, ironically, has exactly zero Spanish-born players on the roster!?
But this might actually be one of the great things about the WBC. Instead of being some kind of nationalistic, flag-waving spectacle of patriotic pride, this tournament is so young and (post-)modern that pretty much anybody with distant roots can play for Team Italy or Team Spain, as long as you’re a good ballplayer. Years from now, perhaps all countries will compete with a squad of mixed nationalities. Or perhaps this trend won’t last long at all; the more popular baseball gets, the more each country will strive to raise some homegrown talent.
Quietly, baseball is gaining an interest in several new areas of the globe just as it’s finally becoming well-known in places where it’s been played for decades. Granted, on the surface it would seem that baseball’s popularity has dwindled over recent years in its traditional strongholds. Baseball has lost its status as the most popular sport in the U.S., the game is no longer part of the Olympics, and even the Puerto Rico Baseball League (renamed this year to the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League) had to cancel play in 2007 due to a drop in attendance.
But if we dig a little deeper, we notice that both MLB profit and attendance numbers in the U.S. are at all-time highs (though the reasons for this can be debated), and this year’s World Baseball Classic is expected to generate a surge of interest in at least the two superpowers that qualified for the tournament – Brazil and China – as well as the smaller European states of Italy, Spain, and Netherlands.
But the best thing about the tournament is seeing entirely different styles of play squaring off against one another. The North American power game against Japanese and Korean small ball; the Cuban sluggers swinging freely for the fences compared to the dangerous Dutch, who always seem capable of manufacturing runs better than any other team; Venezuelan suave vs. Australian grit.
In fact, I bet the WBC is gonna be the biggest, brightest, and best thing to happen in 2013 since that majestic meteor roared through Russia a couple weeks back. (Even though the frozen lake into which the massive meteorite is presumed to have settled might be too murky and cold to see anything right now, they say locals giddily await the approaching spring “like crazy American baseball people ready to run on the grass”).
Spring can’t come soon enough for those of us at the 55th parallel – whether it’s at Lake Chebarkul or here in Copenhagen. As the days slowly get brighter and the sun brings life back to this chilly northern chunk of the globe, those of us with baseball under our skin are indeed itching to get outside and play. And the WBC may yet be that transitional, transnational sporting event needed to carry people from winter to spring and to get them talking about, watching, and playing more baseball.
Here in Copenhagen, you might overhear the mumblings of local barflies discussing how the Urban Achievers will do this season. Along the same 55° latitude, the Moscow Hunters look to return to the Russian baseball championship this summer, while the Diamond Devils of Edinburgh strive for glory in the Scottish league. Even as the 55th parallel circles over to the North American continent, and passes through someplace in Canada called Dawson’s Creek – obviously named after The Hawk – you will find baseball being played by youngins. And that same line of latitude wraps past the Alaska Panhandle, over Russia, and eventually crosses the very spot where that mighty meteor hit: Lake Chebarkul.
Make no mistake: If some kind of alien life emerges out of that frozen lake just in time to watch the WBC, then we’ll know there’s intelligent life out there after all.
Who do you think will make it to the final four…and beyond?