The US Needs To Take Note of the World Baseball Classic
The World Baseball Classic is well underway, and those that have tuned in have been in for a treat. Game after game has come down to the wire, and downright playoff-like atmospheres have developed at times. Five-run comebacks have become the norm, as have on-the-bench mascots and surprise teams. The event isn’t perfect: the extra-innings rule that puts two runners on base for each team starting in the 11th inning, as well as an incomplete replay system, leave something to be desired, but damn if the tournament isn’t fun.
However, after a narrow escape against Team Columbia and a crushing loss to the Dominican Republic, in front of a raucous pro-DR crowd, Team USA is, again, not having much fun. This isn’t exactly new, as the US has never won the tournament, and is just 12-11 in the past three tourneys. The US did recover to easily handle an over-matched Canada squad and advance to the next round, but so far it has been another disappointing showing for American baseball on the world stage.
Perhaps another disappointing outing would be for the best. Jonathan Bernhardt wrote at Today’s Knuckleball how, absent any financial incentives, the only thing that could motivate America to take the tournament it created seriously is embarrassment. If Team USA sputters before the knockout rounds, embarrassment would be the apt word.
The team America has sent is still star-studded, but with several elite players sitting at home (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw come to mind) it’s clear the tournament just isn’t a priority. Ian Kinsler, a second baseman with a good but not great career 111 OPS+, is batting leadoff. The solid but fairly unknown Christian Yelich is batting second. Manager Jim Leyland’s love affair with Eric Hosmer has Hosmer’s middling bat in a prime spot in the order. If Team USA wants to put the country’s best foot forward, that desire has not been elucidated by their actions.
With pitchers like Kershaw unwilling to lend a few innings and sluggers like Trout back home (for now), the Dominican Republic has emerged as the clear favorite. A sensational infield of Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado, and Robinson Cano highlights a deep team full of stars. The DR, the defending champion of the tournament, cares deeply about winning the WBC, and it shows. Yet what the US should take note of from teams like the DR, beyond simply sending their best guys, is the joy with which they play.
The stodgy, one size fits all, “act like you’ve been there before” schtick put forth by most American players is proving to be more and more tired by the day. The “right way to play” that MLB players embrace involves no displays of emotion, no joy at the thought of playing a child’s game for a living, none of what has made teams like the DR and Columbia and Israel so exciting at this tournament. The play the game the right way formula has been shown to be simply no fun.
Just look at any number of countries to see the evident passion that they bring to the game. Look at star shortstop Carlos Correa emphatically flipping his bat after a monstrous home run against Italy. Or Javier Baez and Yadier Molina combining for a stylish caught stealing against the Dominican Republic
Look at Nelson Cruz’s pure elation after hitting a three run, go-ahead home run off of Andrew Miller of Team USA. MLB orthodoxy would say that Cruz should act like he has been there before. But why should he? Why should he act like he has hit several dramatic, emotional home runs at key points of big games, for his country? He hasn’t been here before! Why should he act like this was ho-hum, business as usual work for him when, in fact, what he had done brought him and his teammates immeasurable joy?
Cruz said it himself when Jon Morosi asked him how it felt to hit such a home run for the DR. “Unbelievable, you know, like a little kid, I felt like I was playing little league, you know, I was jumping, I didn’t know what to do”, Cruz said, a broad smile still etched across his face. It’s this child-like joy that MLB players would typically scorn, joy that could earn a bean-ball retaliation at times if enacted during the regular season. It’s clear from Cruz’s words that none of his celebration was meant to show up or disrespect Miller and the Americans, only to express his own happiness, but such a display likely would have been taken as disrespect during the MLB season.
Yet, this is not at all to say that such clear emoting on the field is superior! It is to say that all kinds of approaches to baseball, whether they be stoic and measured, or exuberant and lively, or something in between, should be allowed and celebrated.
If a MLB player wants to remain emotionless on the mound or in the batter box, perhaps in an effort to intimidate the opposition, that’s just fine as well. Countless players have pulled off the unaffected approach to the sport with aplomb. Part of Mariano Rivera’s ethos was how little he seemed perturbed on the mound, how easy he made defeating his opponents seem. The cold, calculating face of Randy Johnson staring down from his massive frame was one of the most imposing sights in the game.
If players want to fit the mold of quiet, unemotional bad-ass on the field, that is certainly their prerogative, and we can look to history to see players successfully emulating that approach. But when that mentality encroaches on other players’ desire to freely express their happiness, MLB loses something. It loses something that the WBC has so clearly put on display.
The WBC has worked tremendously thus far to show how much fun baseball can be, and what it can mean to all different kinds of people. Now, the US, the country that created this joyous event and should be considered its perennial favorite, needs to take note of what is transpiring. America needs to take the tournament seriously if it ever wants to give itself a good chance of winning, and if MLB ever wants to capture the spirit that’s been on display at the WBC, the league needs to be more open-minded about all the different ways players can play, enjoy, and celebrate the game. Failing that, MLB will surely be headed toward more in-season controversies involving vigilante pitchers throwing at the heads of players with the gall to be happy about playing baseball.