By Michael Battista
After a grueling two-week tournament that spanned the globe in both venues and competing teams, the United States stood tall as baseball’s World Champions on Wednesday, March 22, after defeating Puerto Rico, 8-0, in the World Baseball Classic final.
I’m not going to lie and say I watched every game of the event, though, I did wake up at 5 a.m. a few times to watch teams like Australia, Israel and the Netherlands during the group stages.
This tournament was a mix of god awful games, nail biters and great stories. A team like China, which has competed in every World Baseball Classic since the tournament’s start, earned only a single run during its time and gave up 24 runs all together.
Then teams like Chinese Taipei lost all three of its games, but it wasn’t because of the bats. The team scored 20 runs over three games in high scoring battles. Ultimately, the team’s pitching was its entire downfall. It may have been bad baseball in a traditionalist view of the game, but it was fun to watch those early group stage battles.
Team USA pitcher Danny Duffy told USA Today that seeing every different matchup and playing type was the best part of watching the tournament after his team won.
“That’s what made this tournament so fun, watching everyone having their different style,” Duffy said.
Going back to Team USA — it’s about time that it stood at the top of the mountain. In an article for The Signal, I talked about how American professional sports teams call themselves “World Champions” even though it seems undeserved. I mentioned how U.S. baseball teams especially can’t hold that title, but it’s nice to finally say the title has been earned.
For the past three tournaments in 2006, 2009 and 2013, Team USA could only muster a fourth-place finish. Team USA and MLB didn’t care about the tournament at all, even when all-time greats like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. took part. Nothing Team USA did seemed to matter over the might of nations like Japan, South Korea or the Dominican Republic.
Team USA didn’t win with an all-star lineup, much like the legendary 1980 United States men’s national ice hockey team. It won with young talent who had fun being there. When Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim center fielder and New Jersey-native Mike Trout turned down an offer to play for the team, some fans seemed worried that other big time players would follow suit. Why should they waste time with an international tournament that takes away from spring training and wouldn’t be broadcasted on prime time television? The tournament was only available on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
But the players in the tournament — which did include a fair amount of major league talent such as San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Baltimore Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones — came together more than I’ve seen some major league teams do. They topped teams like Japan, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico where their international talent has been on display in MLB and baseball is massively popular.
They may have secured the best record after the tournament ended, but they won when it mattered. Team USA was able to silence Japan and Puerto Rico in the Championship round with solid pitching and clutch hitting.
But I don’t think this is just about talent. Major League Baseball has been lacking in the fun category in the past few years. Players are told to not flip bats, admire home runs and overly celebrate after making a great play in the outfield. Excessive celebration wasn’t a problem in the World Baseball Classic and made games more fun to watch.
During the Championship, pitcher Marcus Stroman had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning against Puerto Rico. Ultimately, his 73 pitch performance earned him the Most Valuable Player award. During the game, after he retired the Puerto Rican side and headed back to his dugout, cameras caught him doing a little shimmy dance. It’s this sort of dumb, fun move that makes me like players.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to be yourself out there, you know,” Stroman said in an interview with MLB Network after the win.
That’s the sort of mentality major league baseball needs if it wants to bring people back into the game. Instead of following unwritten rules that say how players need to act during situations, just let them be themselves and celebrate if they want, especially without the fear of being hit by a 90 mph fastball during their next at-bat as retaliation.
I truly hope that we can see Team USA put on another great display in four years. Sure, I hope it wins with a more exciting and nail-biting title game. Almost in a World Cup-like fashion, I hope fans go into the 2021 tournament with excitement after hearing about this one. Maybe interest in the sport and tournament will increase in this country, as a result.