The 2013 World Baseball Classic is going on right now on two different continents, but many North American sports fans aren’t really paying much attention to it. Why? Well, there are probably a number of good reasons.
First, casual hardball fans probably aren’t ready for competitive baseball in March. We call ball players “the boys of summer,” after all. Second, so many Major League Baseball teams moan and groan about having to “lose” their players to the WBC, and this must certainly rub off on the fans. Third, and probably most important in North America, the United States and Canada have done very poorly. Team USA has just a single 4th place finish in the first two editions of the WBC, and Team Canada’s best finish is 9th. Those aren’t exactly performances that will get local baseball fans pumped up.
However, I think baseball fans should be excited about the World Baseball Classic. And in an attempt to spark a little interest, today I’m bringing you a list of 12 things you should know about the event—a kind of primer to get you all caught up and ready to watch today’s second round action. After all, this really is a unique and fun event. So take a look at the list, then go set your DVR’s. Cool?
Just about every major sport that is actually played in more than one county has had an established international competition featuring its biggest stars. Soccer has the World Cup, basketball has had the Olympics since 1992, and even hockey had various international competitions prior to the pros joining the Olympic movement in 1998.
Baseball, however, never had any competition in which the best players in the world competed for their native countries...until the first World Baseball Classic in 2006. MLB was never willing to adjust their season to accommodate the Olympics, and there weren't any other events. And while the WBC may not seem like a big deal for Americans, to the other baseball loving countries around the world, this is a huge deal. Players love representing their home countries, and the people love seeing their players performing on a truly international stage.
For this reason alone, the WBC is pretty awesome and worth supporting.
12. First of Its Kind
Of course, nothing good comes without a price. And the price of the World Baseball Classic was Olympic baseball. However, there are two different versions of how the WBC and Olympic baseball affected each other.
In one version of the story, it was the IOC's decision to cancel Olympic baseball in 2005 that prompted MLB to create the WBC. In the other version, MLB's tinkering with the idea of a WBC signaled to the IOC that pro baseball players would never play at the Olympics, causing them to finally pull the plug on baseball.
Either way, there would be no WBC without the demise of Olympic baseball and, personally, I'll take the Classic. I never liked Olympic baseball for the same reason I don't like Olympic soccer: I'd rather watch the best a sport has to offer at the Olympics.
11.Circle of Life
The WBC hasn't been a big deal in the USA because, until now, the USA hasn't had much to prove with regard to the sport it invented. However, baseball-mad countries like Japan, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic have plenty to prove. So they love the World Baseball Classic.
Japan is especially bonkers for the WBC. They won the first two editions, thus earning the title of "World Champions," and the television ratings for the WBC have been excellent. The final of the 2006 WBC between Cuba and Japan got a huge 43.4 share, meaning almost half of the country's households were tuned into the game. By comparison, Game 7 of the 2011 World Series got a 14.7 share in the United States.
10. Kind of a Big Deal...in Japan
In Major League Baseball, you hear the word "expansion" and groan. That's because the last thing the league needs is another team in a half-empty stadium with a silly name and even sillier uniforms (I'm looking at you, Tampa and Miami). But for the World Baseball Classic, expansion is an awesome thing.
You see, for the first two tournaments, in 2006 and 2009, the 16 teams were all invited. But for 2013, only the 12 teams that won games in 2009 were automatically qualified. The last four spots were determined by a 16-team qualification tournament, bringing the total number of countries involved in the World Baseball Classic to 28. And the result was two brand new countries joining the tournament this year: Brazil and Spain.
This is exactly the kind of growth MLB was hoping for when they cooked this idea up in the first place.
With the addition of Brazil and Spain, there are now 18 countries who have competed in the main draw of the World Baseball Classic: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, United States, and Venezuela.
Even more impressive than this list is the list of hopefuls who competed in the qualification round: Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Panama, Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand.
Talk about variety.
(And yes, that is Barry Larkin in a Brazil uniform. The Hall of Famer was the manager for WBC first-timers Brazil.)
8. United Nations
One major problem with the WBC so far: they haven't been able to settle on a format for the competition.
In 2006, Round 1 and Round 2 were both round-robin competitions. The teams were divided into groups, each team played each other one time, and then the teams with the best records went to the next round. The problem was that a complicated system of tie-breakers was needed to determine seeding, and even then the team with the best record in the tournament wasn't necessarily the winner.
In 2009, Round 1 and Round 2 were both double-elimination competitions. This means that a team is out once it loses two games. The bright side is that this eliminated the need for complex tie-breakers. The dark side is that every team didn't play every other team in its group.
For 2013, organizers decided to combine the formats from 2006 and 2009. Round 1 is a round-robin competition, complete with the goofy tie-breaking measures. Round two is a double-elimination format. Hopefully this combined format will stick, because if fans have to learn yet another new system the next time around, they might end up hopelessly confused.
7. Format Tinkering
Another problem with the WBC so far: they changed their minds about how often the WBC should be played. At first they decided to buck sports convention and play the tournament every 3 years. But then some math genius realized that, every 12 years or so, the the WBC would fall in the same year as the Summer Olympics. So then they decided to switch to the more conventional "every four years" format—probably a wise move but, once again, it was a little confusing for fans.
6. Triennial vs. Quadrennial
The 2013 WBC alone will have been played in 11 different cities in 6 different countries. Round 2 is being played in Tokyo and Miami, and the Finals will be held at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Meanwhile, the 2009 WBC was held in 7 cities in 5 different countries, while the inaugural WBC in 2006 was played in 7 cities in 3 different countries.
In total, WBC games have been played in 8 different countries, including the qualification rounds in 2012. That is impressive.
5. The Hosts
In 2006, the total attendance for the WBC was 737,112. The average was 18,900 per game, but the two semifinals at San Diego's Petco Park averaged 41,954, and the final featured a capacity crowd of 42,696. That's not bad for the first go.
In 2009, attendance went up a bit. The total for the whole tournament was 801,408, the semifinals at Dodger Stadium averaged 43,504, and the final had 54,846.
Oh, and the 2009 Round 1 matchup between the USA and Canada at the Rogers Centre in Toronto? That had an impressive 42,314. Who says Canadians only like hockey?
4. Attendance Figures
So if you're now finding yourself kind of interested in the WBC, you'll want to know what rules they are using. So, first and foremost, yes, they use the DH at the World Baseball Classic. National League fans might find this an abomination, but pro baseball teams simply do not want their high-priced pitchers doing anything more than the bare minimum.
That brings us to the next major rule difference between MLB and WBC: there are strict pitch counts. For 2013, the limits are 65 pitchers per game in Round 1, 80 pitchers per game in Round 2, and 95 pitcher per game in the Finals.
Pitch counts aren't the only limitations, either. In the first two rounds, there is a 10-run mercy rule after the losing team has batted 7 innings, and a 15-run mercy rule after the losing team has batted 5 innings. The idea here is that you aren't going to "grow" the sport in certain countries by embarrassing them in international competition.
Oh, and one more interesting difference in rules between the WBC and MLB: after 12 innings, teams automatically start off with runners on first and second. The idea here is to prevent ridiculous 18-inning games. (Personally, I think MLB should try this out after, say, 15 innings.)
3. Rule Differences
It didn't take long for the first WBC controversy to pop up. In 2006, South Korea went 6-0 through the first two rounds, beating Japan twice. Then they had to face Japan again in the semifinals...and they lost. Then Japan won the finals against Cuba. That meant the team with the best record in the tournament went 2-1 against the champions. South Korea wasn't happy. So they tinkered with the format for 2009.
And of course, we had a pretty great WBC controversy already this year. Canada tried to run up the score on Mexico, resulting in an intentional beaning and an epic brawl. Why was Canada trying to run up the score, breaking the unwritten code of baseball? Because for 2013, the WBC switched back to round-robin play for Round 1, meaning run differential was once again a tie-breaker.
Of course, these "controversies" are actually good for the WBC. The fact that teams are ticked off shows that they take it seriously. And let's be honest, brawls will only help the TV ratings.
Everybody loves a good Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament. Why not at the World Baseball Classic, too?
Well, in 2009 and again this year, we have a pretty great Cinderella story: the Netherlands. They opened up the 2009 tournament with a shocking victory over the star-studded Dominican Republic. Then they lost to Puerto Rico, setting up a rematch against the DR under the tournament's double-elimination format...and Holland won again, earning a surprise birth in the second round. It was huge for the team, and huge for baseball in general to have a European team in the second round.
This year, the Dutch are at it again. They went 2-1 in their Round 1 pool to advance to Round 2. And in Round 2 they knocked off mighty Cuba, not once, but twice to reach the Semifinals.
So Cinderella is alive and well at the World Baseball Classic!
1. Cinderella Stories
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