Coppola’s Column: America joins the rise of world baseball 

Japan’s Yoshinobu Yamamoto delivers a pitch during the fifth inning of a World Baseball Classic game against Mexico, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Miami. Photo by Wilfredo Lee/AP

Baseball was coined “the national pastime” of America all the way back in 1856, and that fact has remained relatively constant throughout the nearly 160 years since. The sport has had to share the attention of the public following the rise of basketball and football, with length of play also reducing interest of Americans recently. However, on the international stage the game continues to grow at increased rates, particularly in parts of Asia and South America. 

The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and other nations are sending record numbers of ballplayers to the majors. Seeing this rise in popularity, MLB decided to form the World Baseball Classic back in 2006. Since then, Americans haven’t paid too much attention to the competition, with the recency of its foundation coming at the expense of prestige needed to draw further interest. The country that invented baseball so long ago, and staged the biggest league in the world, failed to even reach third place in the first three tournaments in 2006, 2009 and 2013. 

Many major leaguers decided to forgo the tournament, not taking it seriously. That’s not to say they all did, with early teams featuring the likes of Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr, Jimmy Rollins and David Wright. But only a fraction of the talent available was being utilized, and thus the USA failed to make an impact. 

Entering 2017’s iteration of the tournament, there was a major shift in this ideology. Major league players began to realize the value other nations had in the tournament. The 2009 World Baseball Classic final had more viewers than the 2009 World Series. To go even further, viewing numbers in Japan were six times higher for the tournament than it was for the World Series. And that was the case for a majority of countries outside the US too. Even attendance numbers were growing at a relatively impressive rate, with the average attendance rising from 20,000 to 24,000 from 2013 to 2017. 

This triggered the United States into fielding a much more credible roster in 2017, headlined by Eric Hosmer, Christian Yelich and eventual tournament MVP Marcus Stroman. After a hard fought tournament, they finished on top with their first championship. Now, in 2023, the US looks for a second to match the pair that Japan has. 

The 16 teams from the last tournament automatically qualified for this tournament, and the expanded format also welcomed the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Nicaragua and Panama. The United States were already in pool play, and on top of that received some notable additions to their roster. JT Realmuto, Pete Alonso, Trea Turner, Mookie Betts, Kyle Schwarber and Mike Trout accepted their invitations for the first time. Ken Griffey Jr. even returned as a hitting coach. Instantly, the additions pushed them from being ranked fifth globally up to third. 

Pool play was highly competitive, but the United States advanced relatively comfortably. Yet there were certainly surprises. In Pool A, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei, ranked seventh and second worldwide respectively, were eliminated after being beaten out by Cuba and Italy on tiebreakers. The surprises continued, as Pool B saw Australia beat out 2009-runner up South Korea. Even the Dominican Republic, who some experts believed were the favorites, failed to advance over Puerto Rico in Pool D. 

The quarterfinals saw upsets quiet down, with the favorites winning in all four matches. Japan cruised by Italy, and will now be playing Mexico, who just edged out Puerto Rico by a single run to reach the semifinals for the first time in the competition’s history. USA beat Venezuela in a 9-7 thriller that was decided by a Trea Turner grand slam, and then faced Cuba after they narrowly passed Australia. 

The result was pretty anticlimactic, with the semifinal matchup quickly getting out of hand. Trea Turner had two more homers, and was joined by Paul Goldschmidt and Cedric Mullins with homers of their own. They now move on to face the winner of the Japan-Mexico matchup in the championship, with full confidence after their 14-2 showing against Cuba. 

The world is loving baseball, and the US is beginning to feel the excitement again. This is a big moment of change for the sport. Significant rule changes are in place for this upcoming MLB season to appease domestic fans. Many felt baseball was beginning to fade, but thanks to international support the sport may soar to new heights.. 

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