The final of the World Baseball Classic was played Tuesday night in San Francisco, the Dominican Republic beating Puerto Rico, 3-0. Two passionate fan bases made some noise at AT&T Park with Caribbean drumbeats, vociferous cheers, and melodic chants.
But the WBC has been the equivalent of background noise on the American sports scene this month. WBC might as well stand for Who Bleepin’ Cares in baseball’s birth country.
It’s the music they play on the PA system at a department store. You hear it, but you’re not really listening. You’re attuned elsewhere. The dispassionate stateside following of the WBC is yet another reminder for Major League Baseball that baseball might be America’s pastime, but it has ceased being America’s passion.
A true World Series featuring many of the world’s best players should be a marquee event on the American sports calendar; instead it has been pushed to the background and the back pages by the Miami’s Heat’s incredible 23-game winning streak, a never-ending buffet of college basketball, and the start of NFL free agency. To matter, this tournament has to matter in the United States.
The relative lack of serious interest in the WBC seems to be an American phenomenon.
Folks might be balking — and yawning — at the WBC in the good old U-S-of-A, but around the rest of the baseball world, the WBC has been a home run for Major League Baseball.
Puerto Rico’s upset of two-time defending champion Japan in the WBC semifinals on Sunday had 74 percent of the televisions tuned in for the final triumphant moments for the unincorporated, organized US territory.
Japan’s defeat of the Netherlands March 10 netted a 22.1 rating, outdrawing the 2012 Olympics and soccer World Cup qualifying matches.
A March 8 second-round game between Japan and Chinese Tapei that took 10 innings to decide was the highest-rated cable program in Taiwanese history, according to MLB.
Ask MLB and they’ll tell you the tournament is having the desired effect of spreading its hardball hegemony around the globe.
“The main purpose to the World Baseball Classic was to grow the sport around the world,” said MLB spokesman Matt Bourne. “At the end of the day the stuff that really resonates with us is the stuff overseas because that’s what’s really important. That’s the No. 1 goal here.”
There is no question MLB is spreading its brand via the tournament, but it’s not planting baseball’s flag in virgin territories.
Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have been supplying baseball stars to MLB for decades now. A high school baseball tournament in Japan, the Koshien, makes the NCAA Tournament look like a church league. Anyone who has watched the Little League World Series knows of the pride the Taiwanese take in baseball.
The question MLB doesn’t want to answer or confront is why the WBC has not taken off in the US? Why it’s regarded as being no different than spring training games.
If you ask a Red Sox fan what their exposure to the WBC has been they’ll probably mention the melee between Mexico and Canada that was touched off by Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves.
MLB pointed out that the USA vs. Dominican Republic game telecast on MLB Network March 14 set a record for the network’s most-watched non-postseason game with 883,000 viewers.
But that’s fewer than 1 million viewers in a country of more than 300 million people that claims the game as a national heirloom.
Perhaps it is parochial, insular, and isolationist to insist that the WBC can’t succeed without being on the basepath to American relevance (Americans have never been accused of any of those qualities, right?).
To make the WBC matter it has to matter to the American sports fan the same way Olympic basketball does. It has to be a source of national pride.
When the Dream Team played in the 1992 Olympics I didn’t just want Michael, Magic, and Larry to win gold, I wanted them to run Olympic rings around the competition, to defeat other teams so badly that those countries would ponder whether they should abandon the sport.
That was the irrational thinking of a pre-teen, basketball-obsessed boy.
But since we started sending our best, the US reasserting hoops eminence every four years carries significance with American basketball fans.
There was much teeth-gnashing after the US men’s basketball team garnered only a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics. It led to a soul-searching reassessment of the game in this country and a recommitment to international primacy.
That same type of ire, disappointment, and response has not happened yet with the WBC even though the US has never won the tournament, which began in 2006 and is on a quadrennial cycle, and has never reached the tournament final, advancing to the semifinals just once.
The WBC apathy and ennui seems to extend from fans to American players, or maybe it’s a symbiotic relationship.
It’s hard to say the US sent its best to the WBC.
No disrespect to Ryan Vogelsong, but if the US took this event as seriously as some of the other nations with seams in their sporting DNA there is no way Vogelsong would have been on the mound in an elimination game against Puerto Rico last Friday. It would have been Justin Verlander, David Price, Jered Weaver, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, or Matt Cain.
It would have been nice to see Mike Trout, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, or reigning National League Most Valuable Player Buster Posey in a Team USA uniform.
Promoting the stars of the game is a great way to promote the game — domestically and internationally.
The WBC is an event with great potential. But it’s not a great sports event yet.
It’s just baseball background noise.