The World Baseball Classic is Back in Full Swing, But is It Still a Miss?

A tournament that aims to have a worldwide reach has faced noticeable growing pains, though its latest installment made significant strides.


D. Benjamin Miller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After being named the 2022 American League Reliever of the Year, Edwin Díaz re-signed with the New York Mets on a five-year deal. While playing for Team Puerto Rico this year, Díaz suffered a severe knee injury and may be sidelined for the entire season.

The trumpets sound.

‘The Closer’ makes his pilgrimage to the mound. 

There will be no opportunity for the Dominican Republic to rebound. In the fight between David versus Goliath, Rey David has been crowned. 

It’s a 1-2-3 inning, as was bound. 

Edwin Díaz, the Mets’ $102 million man, has just struck out the side for Team Puerto Rico. In a winner-take-all game, the Puerto Ricans have just done the impossible and knocked out the superstar-laden Dominican Republic, who were the favorites to win the entire tournament, in the first elimination round. While there’s still an uphill road to the finals, that doesn’t matter to anyone on the team at the moment, surrounded by their fellow countrymen in Miami.

During the celebration at the mound, Díaz collapses. Initially, he tries to hobble off the field, but there is no use. What is unknown at this point is that he has just suffered a torn patellar tendon, and, barring a medical miracle, will be out for the season. As he is taken off the field in a wheelchair, Alexis, his younger brother and teammate for Team Puerto Rico, weeps for his fallen comrade. 

When I set out to write an article about this year’s World Baseball Classic, a tournament held every four years to determine which nation will be the world champion, I intended to evaluate the extent to which the tournament has thus far been a success. To do so, it is necessary to determine the objective of the WBC’s existence, which is not particularly hard.

The tournament was first held in 2006 after baseball was removed from the Olympics the year prior, with the International Olympic Committee holding that baseball has little worldwide reach, in addition to the fact that the Summer Olympics are held in the middle of the Major League Baseball season and therefore see little participation from the stars of the sport. As such, the WBC was conceived as a sort of ‘World Cup’ for baseball, with a global reach being the ultimate goal of the competition. Paul Archey, the then-senior vice president of international business operations, said that the “initial objective was to…build a platform where the best players in the game could play on behalf of their countries and get baseball better global exposure.”

Countries that qualified for the 2023 World Baseball Classic are in blue, while countries that participated in the qualifier but failed to qualify are in yellow. (Sqldf03, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, for a sport commonly played in just a few countries, this goal would prove to be a challenge. For 2023, the number of participating teams was expanded from 16 to 20, with the Czech Republic, Nicaragua, and Great Britain all qualifying for the first time. To field a competitive team, nations where baseball is seldom played would have to stretch the definition of what being from that country means. Not only can people play for their birth country or their country of citizenship, but anyone with at least one parent who was either born in or was a citizen of that country qualifies. Further, anyone who is eligible to become a citizen of a given country can play for that country.

Consequently, a whopping six players on Team Great Britain’s 37-man roster were actually born in the United Kingdom. Other players on the team either are from a British Commonwealth country, have a parent from the United Kingdom, or have a parent from a Commonwealth country, such as Trayce Thompson, whose father is from the Bahamas. Similarly, Team Italy is largely made up of Italian-American baseball players, such as Vinnie Pasquantino and Matt Harvey, as opposed to players born in Italy. In fact, only five players on Team Italy’s roster were born in the country, though a sixth was born in the microstate of San Marino, which is entirely enclaved by Italy.

Per these eligibility rules, any baseball player with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse can play for Team Israel on the basis of Israel’s Law of Return. As such, the team is almost entirely made up of Jewish Americans, which, combined with the team’s uniforms and imagery, makes the team explicitly Jewish. In light of the fact that over a quarter of Israel’s population follows a different religion, in addition to ongoing conflicts within the region, Team Israel’s setup has led to criticism by some. For a tournament that is still working to grow internationally, any such controversy can potentially be damaging.

Probably more detrimental to the WBC’s legitimacy than who plays is who does not. For one, MLB teams are not inclined to allow their players to participate in the tournament. The two-headed beast of injury risk and the importance of Spring Training, when the WBC takes place, in determining team composition makes the tournament an unworthy proposition for teams, who have the sole goal of putting together a championship squad. 

For a team like the Houston Astros, which has eleven players that participated in the tournament, the WBC presents a significant disruption to the normal flow of Spring Training, where players are typically eased into the demands of the long, grueling season. “Well, it’s kind of putting a wrench in my normal plans and how I do a normal Spring Training,” said Dusty Baker, the manager of the team, in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “I mean, a normal spring training you’d go two innings, four, five, five, seven, seven and you wouldn’t be going nine innings until the last week. So you just gotta adjust.”

Whether the WBC actually puts players at an increased risk for injury is unclear; a study conducted at Washington University after the 2017 tournament found that players who pitch in the WBC miss about four additional days of the season on average, while for position players it is less than a day. The obvious caveat here is that the sample size observed was rather small, as only the WBC’s first three incarnations could be used. Regardless, cases such as Edwin Díaz’s serve as cautionary tales for teams, who would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to the health of their players. 

 In a radio appearance on The Score in Chicago, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman explained his reasoning for blocking Luis Severino from pitching for the Dominican Republic. “We support our players going,” he said, “but when you have a player like Luis Severino who has had an injury history the last few years, of course he wanted to play and represent his country, but that’s not in our best interest given losing him so far over the last few years.” In part, he was worried by the higher stakes of the tournament compared to Spring Training. “Having him pitch competitive, championship-pending, World Baseball Classic, I think ends in March, versus preparation innings in March for your long-haul season, that was a decision I had to make,” he explained. “I respect he wanted to play, but I gotta protect the Yankees first.”

To play in the WBC, MLB players are required to get their contract insured so that their team does not have to pay them for any time missed due to injury from the tournament. Under the current arrangement, the league negotiates a single premium with the firm NFP to cover all players’ contracts. As such, players that are considered “uninsurable” are not included under the policy. This can happen if a player spent a long time on the injured list the previous season, or if a player is believed to have a chronic condition. This left many of the game’s foremost players on the outside looking in, such as Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, and Tyler O’Neill of the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Despite Cabrera’s several biceps injuries over the past few years, the Tigers opted to waive Cabrera’s insurance requirement, allowing him to play for Team Venezuela. They decided to take on this risk largely because Cabrera is in his last season and far past his prime, having hit a paltry .254/.305/.317 last year, and the Tigers themselves figure to have little to play for in 2023 after going 66-96 last year. While O’Neill had been barred from representing Team Canada due to ending the 2022 season on the injured list, the Cardinals waived this clause and he was authorized for insurance coverage after a physical.

Kershaw, who has dealt with chronic back problems and has not reached even 180 innings pitched since 2015, did not have his insurance requirement waived, in large part because his Dodgers are expected to remain in the thick of World Series contention after going 111-51 last year. Kershaw’s absence, as well as decisions from other American pitchers such as Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees and Max Scherzer of the New York Mets not to participate, left Team USA without anyone on their pitching staff who could realistically be considered an ace. For his own part, Scherzer explained that he is “not ready to step into quasi-playoff games” in anticipation of the physically taxing 162-game season. 

Determined to represent his country, Kershaw looked into other ways of getting the insurance he needed, including paying for a personal policy, but was ultimately unsuccessful. “Obviously, if [your MLB] team doesn’t want you to play, that’s one thing,” he said, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “But if you have the team’s blessing like I did, it should be easier.”

Beyond Major League teams blocking players from playing for their nation, there were some players who were kept out by their country. This was the case for many Cuban Major Leaguers, as the island nation has long had a rocky relationship with MLB. Before signing with a MLB team, players from Cuba, which has been under embargo by the United States since 1962, must defect from the country and establish residency in a different country. Defection is seen by the Cuban government as a great insult, as baseball is considered integral to Cuba’s national identity, with Fidel Castro himself being said to have tried out for the Washington Senators (though this is almost certainly a myth). As such, the Cuban national team previously barred any defectors from playing, despite the WBC’s aforementioned loose eligibility requirements. 

While Team Cuba has since softened its restrictions, some players, such as Aledmys Díaz of the Oakland Athletics, still were not invited, with the exact reasons being unclear. Many other Cuban-born players refused to play for the team, including Randy Arozarena of the Tampa Bay Rays. Arozarena is instead playing for Team Mexico, the country that he became a citizen of after defecting. “There’s a lot of Cuban players that want to represent Cuba, for example, in a World Baseball Classic or an important tournament, but because of politics, they can’t,” he explained. “For my part, I wouldn’t represent Cuba until everything changes.”

While some merchandise has been available for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, it is in short supply and can be difficult to find. (ウィ貴公子, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to a lack of participation, the World Baseball Classic has experienced some growing pains when it comes to marketing. For one, tickets were initially only being sold in complicated packages, making it more difficult for fans to attend than it needed to be. Additionally, official merchandise was few and far between, often being sold out and with variable availability depending on the nation. 

In a piece published by the Journal of Sport Administration and Supervision, Dr. Benjamin D. Goss, a Professor of Management at Missouri State University, held that in order to succeed, “MLB must contextualize the WBC as a global event with worldwide width and great depth, but because of the varying impact of the sport of baseball around the world, MLB must market itself as an international brand.” In some respects, that many globally recognizable sponsors have been attained for each iteration of the tournament offers optimism as to the global reach of the tournament. That being said, only some of the WBC’s sponsors do much to further the image of the tournament and baseball as a whole. While sponsors such as Delta and Konami can encourage travel and attract a younger audience, respectively, there is nothing about companies such as MetLife that ties them to baseball. 

Notably, MLB was able to secure a deal with Fox to broadcast the tournament in the United States, with games being shown on Fox, FS1, FS2, and the free-with-ads streaming service Tubi. As such, it can be said that MLB, which has become notorious for its exclusive cable deals and blackout restrictions that prevent many fans from watching their local teams’ games, did well in making the tournament accessible to view. 

However, the World Baseball Classic’s greatest flaws are also its most fundamental. After all, baseball is known as America’s national pastime, and it is difficult to reconcile this fact with any attempt to grow the game internationally. While entirely made up, the story of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown, the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1839 speaks to the mythology surrounding the sport; to many, baseball hearkens back to a supposed agrarian, democratic past.

This core mythology is simply less relatable to those in many other countries, and nations where baseball has caught on, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Latin America, historically have all been within the United States’ sphere of influence often subject to neocolonial rule by the U.S. In an article published by the Athens Journal of Sports, Roberta J. Newman, a clinical professor in New York University’s liberal studies program, claimed that “The very notion that players from Latin America, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, for example, can become big league stars reinforces MLB’s democratic, ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’ brand of Americanism.” In this sense, MLB’s ambitions to turn the WBC into an event that can rival the FIFA World Cup seem futile. Good ticket sales and excellent viewership numbers in Japan, South Korea, and the Caribbean mean nothing, as both occur in places where baseball already has a foothold. With limited reach, it is hard to call the World Baseball Classic anything other than a failure.

None of it mattered even a bit.

The 2023 installment of the World Baseball Classic has now come and gone, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it was the best one yet. 

Initially planned for 2021, the tournament was pushed back two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that it had been six years since the last version. This only served to leave fans hungry for baseball to be played on an international stage, and people were all the more excited when it finally came. This was reflected in the television ratings for the tournament, which were dramatically higher than in previous years. Despite taking place on a Wednesday at 8 A.M. local time, the WBC finals between Japan and USA were watched by a staggering 42.7% of Japanese households. In the United States, the finals had 5.2 million viewers, representing a 69% increase over the previous high-water mark. Similar patterns were seen across the participating countries, with Taiwan in particular (known as Chinese Taipei in the tournament), which was one of the host countries, having a 151% increase in viewership over that of 2017. 

The emergence of the World Baseball Classic as a momentous event goes beyond television viewership. This year, the tournament had 1,306,414 attendees across all its games, representing a 20% increase over 2017, albeit with more games on account of the expansion of the tournament to 20 teams. The scarcity of merchandise available for the tournament was actually indicative of increased interest, as online sales via and Fanatics were 149% higher than six years ago.

Japan served as one of the host countries for the first round of the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Led by two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and featuring players such as the veteran Yu Darvish and the flamethrowing 21-year-old Roki Sasaki, Team Japan would go on to win the tournament, its third WBC win. (ウィ貴公子, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Importantly, the popularity of the WBC rendered it a star-making event, with both established superstars and national heroes having their profiles raised. Shohei Ohtani, the MVP-winning two-way phenom, went from 1.8 million followers on Instagram to 4.8 million after his Team Japan won the tournament. Lars Nootbaar, whose “pepper-grinder” celebration became iconic in the wake of his heroics for Team Japan, saw his Instagram following grow from 59,000 to 901,000. The aforementioned Randy Arozarena, with no shortage of flashy plays for Team Mexico, went from 125,000 Instagram followers to 547,000.

With all that being said, to talk about the World Baseball Classic with numbers only is to take away from what made this installment truly special. Game after game went down to the wire, and anyone who witnessed them can attest to their sheer electricity. Amazingly, the final ended in a showdown between Ohtani and Mike Trout, who both play for the Los Angeles Angels and are regarded by many as the two greatest players on the planet. The magic of that moment, wherein Ohtani struck Trout out on four pitches, ranks up there with the most iconic stories in baseball history. On a more personal note, rooting for Team Puerto Rico, I found myself more connected to my heritage than I had ever been before. Generations of assimilation meant nothing as I felt the highs of Team PR’s underdog victories, as well as the lows that were Díaz’s injury and their eventual loss to Team Mexico. 

The 2023 WBC created so much excitement that another tournament has been planned for 2026, just three years from now. Even if the World Baseball Classic falls short of MLB’s goals, it is a thrilling event for die-hard and casual baseball fans alike.

The 2023 installment of the World Baseball Classic has now come and gone, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it was the best one yet.