On Saturday, pool play in the third World Baseball Classic will begin with a matchup between Australia and Taiwan. Japan, which won the tournament in 2005 and in 2009, again this year faces Dominican and U.S. teams studded with major leaguers. The tournament involves five teams from the Asia-Pacific (Australia, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, China, and Japan), plus three more with Pacific coastlines (United States, Mexico, and Canada). Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, and the Netherlands fill out the slate.
From the point of view of a Major League Baseball fan, the WBC offers real, contested games a month before they’d otherwise be available. However, the baseball press in the United States has concentrated mainly on Major League spring training, rather than on the WBC. The Baseball Prospectus, for example, has devoted very little attention to the WBC, beyond some observations about how participation in the tournament doesn’t actual reduce pitcher performance in the MLB regular season.
However, the WBC appears to be more popular in Japan and Korea than in the United States, perhaps not surprisingly given the outstanding performances of Japan and Korea in the last two tournaments. Indeed, the Japanese players union threatened to pull out unless it received a greater share of the substantial portion of WBC revenues earned in Japan.
The Dominican Republic, led by Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes, and Hanley Ramirez, is the odds on favorite to win the Classic, followed by the United States and Japan. In 2009, however, a strong Dominican team failed to escape pool play, losing twice to the Netherlands. The popularity of the WBC in Korea and Japan may give those teams an edge in morale; U.S. play in the first two tournaments occasionally seemed lackadaisical, as players looked ahead to the Major League season.
Indeed, the major league connection has proven a handicap for many of the American teams. Major league teams have discouraged many of their players (especially pitchers) from participating in the WBC due to injury and exhaustion risks. Consequently, some of the most devastating players in baseball, including Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Johnny Cueto, are sitting the WBC out. On the other hand, the participation of Joey Votto lends no small degree of punch to the Canadian team.
The broader question is the extent to which the WBC helps produce a Pacific rim baseball community. Although major Japanese and Korean stars have played in the United States (and American players are common in Japan), the trans-Pacific relationship remains substantially outside the integrated system that characterizes baseball in the Americas. Of course, whether such integration is desirable is an altogether different question; baseball has a distinct character in each of Korea, Japan, and North America, adding a regional and cultural richness to the sport. A fully globalized baseball might result in homogeneity, detracting in some sense from the experience that American baseball fans have enjoyed in the career of Ichiro.
Robert Farley is a regular contributor to the Diplomat's Flashpoints blog.