If you walked through the stands at Chase Field in Phoenix this past week you saw what the vision was for the World Baseball Classic. Lines formed at concession stands where fans of every ethnic background purchased hats, T-shirts, and other fan apparel, not of the hometown Diamondbacks, but of Mexico, USA, Italy and Canada. Want a Ryan Braun shirt? Get Team USA on the front. While sitting in the stands you heard people conversing in French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. Is baseball America’s pastime or the world’s? If you are MLB, maybe a little of both.
From a player’s perspective, the WBC is still a bit of an anomaly. The timing has made many stars, especially Americans and this time the Japanese as well, forgo the tournament to stay with their clubs and prepare for the long grind ahead of the MLB and Japanese seasons. However, for stars like RA Dickey, David Wright and Braun for the Americans, Jose Reyes for the Dominican Republic, and Carlos Beltran for Puerto Rico, the experience seems to be everything they had hoped it would be, with no negative impact on the season ahead. The games and the feel of patriotism have even spurred some others to voice an opinion to play for their country in future events, Bryce Harper being one of them. The tournament is not perfect from a participation standpoint, but it continues to catch on.
Some proof of growth? A record number of fans have attended the World Baseball Classic thus far, as nearly a half-million fans cheered their favorite teams in the tournament's first round. A total of 463,017 fans came through the gates for first-round games in Japan, Taiwan, Puerto Rico and Phoenix. The previous record entering the second round was 453,374 in 2009. Among the highlights was the largest attendance ever in Taiwan, where 23,431 watched Chinese Taipei face Korea at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium on March 5. In Phoenix, 115,183 watched first-round games -- easily surpassing the venue's previous first-round record of 91,205 in 2006. It was the second most-attended World Baseball Classic game in North America, trailing only the 2009 championship, which drew 54,846 to Dodger Stadium. Pool C in San Juan attracted 95,058 fans, which was the highest World Baseball Classic attendance there in the tournament's history.
The event has drawn record numbers in the social space, and although it is not something that MLB really wants to push, Sunday’s brawl between Mexico and Canada certainly catapulted interest in the event among casual fans. From an emerging nations standpoint, the top two European nations, Italy and the Netherlands, both pulled off upsets to advance to the second round, unseeding traditional powers Cuba, Mexico, and Canada. “Honkball,” as the game is called by the Dutch, is growing at record levels, while the Italian League, the oldest professional league not in Japan or the US, improves in play each passing year. At a time when basketball and soccer continue to make global growth plans, the WBC is providing evidence that baseball’s global appeal is not shrinking at all.
"This is our great vehicle to internationalize the sport," Commissioner Bud Selig said in Arizona last week. "And while nothing in life is perfect -- I know there have been some questions about timing, and so on and so forth -- I think everybody has come to the conclusion that this is as good a time as any.
"I've been watching the games in Japan and elsewhere, and this is what we're trying to do. Internationalization of the sport is really the goal. And in my judgment, if we do it right, you won't recognize this sport in a decade. But this has been great. There is a great atmosphere here, and I really feel good about it. This serves as a vehicle to lift our sport. Every player that you talk to loves it. Overall, you'll look back on this in retrospect someday and realize that you're watching a sport that is going to be legitimately worldwide."
The semi-final rounds in the next few days in Japan and Miami will look to build off last weekend’s play. Two Latin countries, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic along with Team USA, should help get even bigger crowds to Miami, and maybe just enough snowbirds still in Florida will come out to see Italy as well. The home standing Japanese, looking to defend their first two titles, should also get more support as they try and advance to the final round again in San Francisco.
Is the WBC perfect? No. Is it a showcase of the global power of baseball? Sure. Has it been entertaining? Absolutely. Those who have bashed the event as a non-starter and a distraction haven’t been in the stands at stadiums in Puerto Rico, Korea, or the US and seen the patriotism and felt the vibe. Maybe they will get on board as the event goes to the next round. They are missing a good show, and an even better international vehicle to grow the game.