Kings of the World
Lately, you’ve been reading a lot about the MLB hot stove and about Hall of Fame balloting. In this week’s Up N’ In, however, we’ll take a break from all that and leap forward to spring. And by leaping forward, I don’t mean to spring training – I mean to the World Baseball Classic.
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) arrives once again this March. It’s one of the two main senior baseball tournaments sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), but the only international tournament that grants the winner the title of “World Champion.”
The WBC is a collaboration of baseball organizations around the world, primarily including Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).
One notable difference between the international Classic and international Olympic baseball, however, is that current major league players are allowed – indeed, encouraged – to participate in the WBC tournament; whereas even though Olympic baseball in the past may have included minor leaguers, current players from the major leagues were not permitted to participate in the Olympics.
And to many people’s minds, this is what made Olympic baseball less interesting than, say, Olympic hockey – in which players from the highest professional leagues, such as the NHL, have traditionally competed for years.
Hence, the WBC is really a tournament of the best of the best against the rest of the best; and due to the level of play and the strong thread of team national identity that’s woven through the contest, it draws a pretty significant audience worldwide. Just for example, the 2006 and 2009 final WBC series rank among the most highly rated sporting events in Japan’s television history.
Modeled after the FIFA World Cup, the latest of which was held just recently (with Argentina as its winner), the WBC was suggested and organized in response to the removal of baseball as an Olympic activity in 2005. The last Olympic baseball games were played in 2008, until baseball temporarily returned during the pandemic-delayed 2021 Summer Olympics – with only six teams competing. There is no plan to include baseball again in the 2024 Summer Olympics.
In January 2020, MLB announced the 2021 WBC would expand the field from 16 teams, the number who participated in the 2017 WBC, to 20 teams. The additional four participants were to be determined through qualifying tournaments.
However, on March 12, 2020, Major League Baseball announced that the 2021 WBC edition would be postponed due to the pandemic. The next WBC was subsequently rescheduled for March 8-21, 2023.
Qualifiers for the additional four participating teams did indeed take place; they took place from September 16, 2022-October 5, 2022.
Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama (R) and Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani pose during a news conference, in which Japan's initial roster for the March 8-21 World Baseball Classic was announced. Ohtani was named among the first 12 members of the squad. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
Well, now March 2023 is only two months away. And while most American and/or Canadian MLB fans are generally focused on MLB spring training in March, this year spring training games will be starting a bit earlier than usual, in part to accommodate the WBC. Spring training games have been scheduled for as early as February 24th. February isn’t just for pitchers and catchers anymore.
Moreover, select games featuring WBC teams will be played at various spring training facilities on Wednesday, March 8th and Thursday, March 9th.
Taichung (in Chinese Taipei), Tokyo, Phoenix, and Miami will be the four host cities of the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
There are several pools in the WBC, and WBC 2023 will open with pool play on March 8th in Taichung, and it will end with the semi-finals as well as the championship game (to be played on March 21st) at LoanDepot Park in Miami.
The defending world champion United States, who won the last Classic in 2017, will play in Pool C at Chase Field in Arizona against Canada, Mexico, and Colombia, as well as Great Britain, who qualified back in the fall of 2022.
2017 Runner-up Puerto Rico will play in Pool D at LoanDepot Park against the 2013 champion Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Israel, and Nicaragua, the latter of whom also qualified in fall 2022. Two-time WBC champion Japan will headline Pool B at the Tokyo Dome, which has been a host stadium for all four Classics.
REGENSBURG, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 21: Team Czech Republic celebrates qualifying for the World Baseball Classic after defeating Team Spain during Game 9 at Armin-Wolf-Arena on Wednesday, September 21, 2022 in Regensburg, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Widmann/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Here is the breakdown of all the pools, and how their game dates are staggered:
Group A: Taichung, Chinese Taipei (March 8 through 13)
Group B: Tokyo, Japan (March 9 through 13)
Group C: Phoenix, Arizona (March 11 through 15)
Group D: Miami, Florida (March 11 through 15)
REGENSBURG, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20: Team Great Britain celebrates after qualifying for the World Baseball Classic by defeating Team Spain at Armin-Wolf-Arena on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in Regensburg, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Widmann/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
2023 WBC Team USA, is, quite simply, stacked. Unless something changes, along with some others on the roster are Pete Alonso of the Mets, Tim Anderson of the White Sox, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, and Will Smith of the Dodgers, and Trea Turner, J.T. Realmuto, and Kyle Schwarber of the Phillies. Captaining this outstanding team will be Mike Trout of the Angels.
Team USA will be managed by 2009 WBC player Mark DeRosa. His coaching staff includes Ken Griffey Jr. as hitting coach, and Andy Pettitte as pitching coach. As I said, stacked.
But that’s not to overlook some of the other outstanding national teams Team USA will have to face in order to repeat as world champion. Shohei Ohtani is expected to play for Japan and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the Dominican Republic, as two examples of the top competitors other national teams will be featuring on their 2023 WBC rosters. Because many current and former MLB players qualify as representatives of nations around the world, a number of other WBC rosters will probably look equally impressive to the Team USA roster.
There will be a total of 47 games played across the various cities in the 2023 WBC. Four of the competing teams have never before played in this tournament: Panama, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and Nicaragua. The expansion of competing countries in 2023 represents how international a sport baseball has truly become. The NHL has had this international feature in its back pocket for years; both the NBA and the NFL have been working to acquire it; but it seems like MLB’s day has finally begun to arrive.
Andy Brown, the artist for Team Great Britain paints a view of the stadium during Game 2 between Team Great Britain and Team France at Armin-Wolf-Arena on Friday, September 16, 2022 in Regensburgh, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Widmann/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Yet the WBC implies more than the internationality of the sport itself; it implies how much stronger individual players’ brands can become internationally. And that’s got to be part of the appeal for top MLB players to participate in the WBC, no matter which country they’re representing.
MLB’s superstars are starting to recognize the enjoyment value of participating in the Classic, but also the potential from a financial point of view. When multiple countries are playing in the Classic, the entire baseball world is watching, from China to Nicaragua, and that spells the possibility of sponsorships and other brand opportunities.
If you were a player’s agent, and you had the choice between your client playing a few more games at his team’s MLB spring training facility (against other MLB teams) versus playing the same number of games against the best of the best from other countries – and being watched by thousands (perhaps millions) of eyes all around the world – which would you recommend to your client?
True, your client will probably play more innings in the WBC than he would in spring training, and that goes to wear and tear considerations; but in terms of brand and monetary considerations, which seems the better choice?
So, as you focus on 2023 MLB Spring Training as D-Day for baseball to return, keep in mind that there will be more, and other, baseball to watch as well. And it will not be amateur baseball for all participating teams (as it had been in the Olympics); it will be high-quality, superstar baseball in many games. Now, that ought to warm you up toward the end of a cold winter away from the game you love.