UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Baseball Classic’s back, but is it actually ‘classic’?

It will never stir worldwide national passions the way the FIFA World Cup does every four years, but the World Baseball Classic is returning after a six-year absence, and it seems to be catching on with some folks. 

“I never followed the tournament closely in the past,” Rockies closer Daniel Bard told MLB.com’s Thomas Harding recently. “I was too busy getting myself ready, or in 2017, I was just not very good at baseball, so it didn’t appeal to me a whole lot. 

“But I’ve gone back and watched a bunch of highlights. Every time I see it, it gets me even more excited.” 

The fifth WBC begins play next week with squads representing 20 nations playing five-team round-robins at four sites. Bard will be part of the United States team this time. 

The top two teams from each Pool advance, with the World Champion decided in a one-game final in Miami March 21. 

The U.S. is defending the title, but Japan, Cuba and the Latin American countries that produce so many Major Leaguers—led by the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—are strong contenders. Puerto Rico has finished second in each of the last two Classics.

For those who are interested, this month’s games will be televised, on a combination of Fox, FS1, FS2 and the Fox streaming service Tubi (some at odd hours because of sites in other parts of the world). 

Two previous WBCs are among the highest-rated TV events EVER in baseball-crazy Japan, which has won this international tournament twice. But so far, the WBC hasn’t captured the attention of America’s baseball fans—yours truly among them—to a degree that approaches the frenzy of Japan’s baseball fanatics or soccer nuts worldwide. 

I am more likely to follow the Rockies’ progress in Scottsdale, and news in general from camps in Arizona and Florida, than watch WBC games. I view the WBC as a distraction to the coming Major League season and an unwise risk of injury.

Beyond baseball’s decline from true “national pastime” status in the States and soccer’s worldwide popularity, which dwarfs both soccer and baseball in the U. S., the reasons the WBC is not on par with the FIFA World Cup seem obvious. 

The U.S. team attracts many MLB stars, but many others (including home run champ Aaron Judge this time) eschew participation for various reasons. So, it’s not America’s best in every instance. 

The WBC takes place when players are shaking off the rust of four months of relative inactivity, working their way into shape for the six-month grind ahead. So, we’re not seeing anyone in mid-season form. 

WBC games are competing for attention daily with spring training action in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, which provides at least a hint of what to expect come Opening Day. That’s what I care about.

Baseball, in general, is up against the dominant sports attraction of the moment—March Madness. Even non-fans get excited enough to fill out a bracket and enter an office pool.

All of that said, Rockies fans who have a parochial rooting interest in this WBC have several reasons to watch. 

Eleven current or former Rockies are on WBC rosters, including:

  • John Axford, Canada; 
  • Elias Diaz, Colombia: 
  • Carlos Estevez, Dominican Republic; 
  • Alan Trejo, Mexico;
  • Justin Lawrence, Panama; 
  • Daniel Bard, Kyle Freeland, Adam Ottovino and Nolan Arenado, USA; and
  • Jhoulys Chacin and German Marquez, Venezuela. 

More broadly, many superstars are expected to play, such as two-way marvel Shohei Ohtani, a former American League most valuable player; 2022 National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara; the latest addition to the 3,000-Hit Club, Miguel Cabrera; and Miggy’s fellow former MVPs Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Jose Altuve.

The WBC was conceived by Major League Baseball’s then-commissioner, Bud Selig, after the International Olympic Committee dumped baseball from the Summer Games in 2005. 

The Classic was held in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2017, and attendance increased each time—from an average of 18,900 per game in ’06 to 24,342 in ’17. 

By comparison, the World Cup in Qatar late last year averaged 53,000 per game. So, baseball has some ground to cover before the WBC rivals FIFA’s world tournament for popularity. 

Covid delayed the next Classic by two years. We’ll soon see what effect the pandemic hiatus had on the public’s level of interest in this attempt to broaden baseball’s reach.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.