Forget March Madness…Watch the WBC

You probably didn’t hear about it, but the World Baseball Classic just started. Don’t feel like you are out of the loop; no one seems to know or care much about the WBC. And although you have March Madness, spring training, or maybe your own fulfilling career to distract you from creeping existential angst, I want to make the argument that you should focus on the WBC.

(I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michael Baumann over at the Ringer made his own list of reasons to watch the WBC. It’s a quick, fun read, so click over there if you need more convincing. He also touches on at least two of the points I will bring up.)

1. Prospects, prospects, prospects. One of the main problems with the WBC–at least the United States team–is that it has trouble enticing the real stars of the game to take time out of their preseason workouts and exhibition games to play internationally. Seen another way, though, this can also be one of the biggest opportunities of the tournament: the hole left by veteran ballplayers is readily filled by the young up-and-comers of the game. The WBC can be one of the best ways to get a look at the players who will be leading the MLB in a few short years.

2. They have a bracket, so you won’t have to miss the communal part of March Madness. Just get some friends together and see who can guess which country will go all the way. Does the Dominican Republic have what it takes to repeat 2013? Or will the perennially solid Japanese team rise to the occasion? With any luck, all of our brackets will be shot by the end of March, finally clearing the path for the United States to collect a WBC title.

3. It’s an alternative to spring training. If you are a consummate baseball fan like me, you want to enjoy the game as soon as possible. You were on Twitter all winter, reading Jon Heyman and Ken Rosenthal’s feeds, trying to find any informational morsel to nourish you until spring. Then when spring training arrives, you’re forced to keep up the facade that exhibition games are what you have been waiting for all year. But alas, spring training just isn’t meaningful enough. The WBC can be that bridge to competitive baseball. Instead of watching teams field half-strength lineups in glorified scrimmages, why not watch a real tournament for international glory? Then, just when the WBC is over and we are all done processing, the first pitches will be thrown on opening day.

4. It shows you the scale and influence of the sport. As an American, I think it is easy to take baseball for granted. One of the most beautiful things about the game is that it happens everyday from April until October, giving us a way to mark the progress of the middle of the year. But this omnipresence can lend itself to complacency. If my team plays every evening at 7, why bother listening in or reading the box score? The entire season is so long that every individual game loses any sense of urgency or importance when you are face-to-face with the sheer scale of the entire endeavor.

But the WBC allows us to take a step back and get a global perspective. We can see how the game that is uniquely ours (or our own bastardization of a game played in England centuries ago, depending on how you look at it) has been taken up by other countries, molded by their own cultures and perspectives, with the same basic rules holding sway, but with entirely different styles and characters emerging to fill the gaps in those rules. In the end, we are left to grapple with the question: Is baseball really is America’s game? Does America even want it anymore? Sure the MLB is making money hand over fist, but the American fan base is aging and today’s youngsters just aren’t into baseball like their grandparents were.

On the other hand, maybe baseball isn’t for America anymore, but it has ascended to some higher plane. Maybe it is a citizen of the world. Like those other uniquely American innovations of jazz and the Constitution, maybe baseball is just some vague framework that anyone can paint their own ideals and prejudices onto. If so, watching the WBC lets us experience other cultures through the lens of baseball. It’s just a simple bat and ball sport, but for much of the twentieth century the world could have learned a lot about Americans by understanding the game: what they valued, who their heroes were like, even how they felt about labor versus capital. Maybe now in the twenty-first century, baseball is what Americans need to understand the world.

Little Market, Big Possibilities

We have not seen the Cleveland ball club in the World Series since 1997 (although I saw them there on Netflix just a few months ago), but this most recent
AL pennant is important for another reason aside from the relative rarity. The simple storyline that we can attach to the Cleveland side of the World
Series would be that Cleveland is now “Believeland”, a place where pro team franchises can succeed and reinvigorate a downtrodden blue-collar town. But I
would argue that it is a terrible injustice to the entire Cleveland baseball organization to suggest that what they are doing is impressive only in light
of what the Cavaliers have already done in the NBA. Specifically, the front office is continuing to prove to the baseball community that small market,
small budget MLB teams can build from within and go all the way.

One of the most familiar symptoms of a small market team is a reliance on homegrown talent. Fortunately for Cleveland, they have done this quite
successfully. Nine out of Cleveland’s top twelve players, by Baseball Reference’s wins above replacement model, made their MLB debut with the team, compared
to six of the Cub’s top twelve. In Chicago, only three of those twelve were drafted or signed as an amateur free agent by the Cubs, compared to six of
Cleveland’s top twelve. Both teams have struggled in the last decade or so, and have thus been rewarded with top draft picks. Specifically, Cleveland has been awarded seven top 20 overall draft picks since 2009, while Chicago came in just behind them with six*. So while it appears that the teams have been similarly lucky with draft picks in the last few years, Cleveland has done a better job of developing those guys and directly benefiting from them at major league level.

As a fan of a small market team, I can sympathize with Chris Antonetti and the baseball operations gang in Cleveland. I know that they are not drafting top prospects and painstakingly developing them all the way through the minor league system because they enjoy it as a pastime. Cleveland’s 2016 payroll is roughly half that of Chicago’s. Developing from within is really the only way that Cleveland can be successful. Cleveland certainly is not the first franchise to exploit this strategy to make it to the World Series, but it is inspirational to see another small market team go all the way. It really says a lot about our favorite sport that it is not just the New Yorks, the Los Angeleses, and the Chicagoes that are succeeding in October. However this next best-of-seven goes, we are guaranteed to have another great narrative when we have a champion. It just might even be another small market club that manages to beat the big boys.

 

*For the record, Cleveland actually had two of those guys on their roster in 2016, compared to three for the Chicago. But, to be fair, the third guy in Chicago is Kyle Schwarber, so do with that what you will.