The Dominican Republic’s come-from-behind victory over the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic game in Miami last week created a buzz from hardcore baseball fans throughout the world and was met with a collective shrug from baseball’s traditional American fan base. Why does the WBC mean more outside the United States than inside?
Marlins Park has never been known for atmosphere, as last year the Miami Marlins finished 27th in home attendance (with about 46.8 percent of the attendance that the league-leading L.A. Dodgers had at Chavez Ravine). That all changed Friday night as the World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and the “home team” USA set an attendance record for the six-year-old park with multiple accounts noting an October-like (i.e. playoff baseball) feeling to the game. MLB.com even reported that once Jeurys Familia had clinched the save that the fans in the stands reacted “as if the game had been played in Santo Domingo.”
Why is the WBC more important to players representing teams outside of the U.S.? Nelson Cruz, who hit the game-winning home run to beat the U.S., was quoted as saying, “Only in a movie or dream you can describe what occurred.” Freddie Freeman, who lost his mother to melanoma, chose to honor her Canadian heritage by representing Canada during this year’s tournament.
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Despite being on the downside of their career, veterans like Adrian Gonzalez (Mexico), Jose Reyes (Dominican Republic), Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina (Puerto Rico) have chosen to play for their countries for the fourth time, instead of begging off the WBC invitation for a softer warm-up to the regular season in Spring Training.
“Ain’t nobody make it to the Hall of Fame and win the World Series playing in the WBC.” – Noah Syndergaard, Mets pitcher
There are exactly zero players that have represented the U.S. four times. Do the comments of Noah Syndergaard ring true for most American players? Alongside Syndergaard, a U.S. team made entirely of players that chose not to participate would be one of the favorites to win the tournament with Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner sitting out and young players on the cusp of superstardom like Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Syndergaard showing little interest in being a part of the U.S. team.
The mentality of many American players is to show loyalty to their employers and prepare for their season as normal. The pinnacle of their sport is the World Series and that’s where their focus stays from now until October (or when they are eliminated from playoff contention). The WBC currently does not have the tradition or prestige (or as cynicism dictates, the marketing opportunity) to act as incentive for some American superstars to participate.
The timing of the tournament during Spring Training is another reason for a lack of enthusiasm among casual American baseball fans who are not expecting to see meaningful games at this time of year. Meaningful games take place in the fall during pennant chases and playoffs. For this to change, the honor of pulling on the national jersey needs to be prioritized by all of the best players to legitimize the competition as being anything other than glorified Spring Training.
The difference is that players from other countries do feel a WBC tournament title means something. Syndergaard’s teammate Jose Reyes had this to say about his motivation to participate:
“Any chance that comes your way to represent your country, you have to do it because you’re highlighting your country. That’s why I’ve never said no. I feel like I’m not only doing this for my country, but for all the Dominicans all over the world.” – Jose Reyes, Mets shortstop
The enthusiasm for the tournament is not only the domain of international players. The fans of countries with a chance of winning the tournament are also here in mid-season form as witnessed by all of the Dominicana shirts seen in Miami this past week. Unfortunately, for the tournament to be truly recognized as a worthwhile global competition, American fans need to get behind their team instead of prioritizing trips to Port St. Lucie, Glendale or Jupiter to see meaningful baseball this time of year.