It is highly likely that baseball fans will not experience games this thrilling for another six months. This is late-September and early-October baseball. This is exactly what the most optimistic of baseball fans hoped they were getting with the World Baseball Classic.
Thrilling games? The 2013 WBC has those. Italy beat Mexico when a ninth inning error by Mexico opened the door for them and closer Jason Grilli made sure the Italians took advantage. Just this morning, the Netherlands beat Cuba in a thrilling 7-6 walkoff win to qualify for the semifinals.
Upsets? Upsets abound in this tournament. The Netherlands knocked off Korea in the first round and then triumphed over Cuba to move on to San Francisco. Italy made it out of Pool D. Venezuela was knocked out early.
Tension has been big in the Classic so far. Team USA had its back to the wall for what seemed like all of Pool D until its ninth inning breakout against Canada, narrowly avoiding humiliation.
Of course, all of that is dwarfed by the biggest water-cooler moment this tournament has ever seen, the enormous brawl between Mexico and Canada that put an exclamation point on the tournament's drama.
This is not to praise the fight. Great baseball is not watching people like Alfredo Aceves get pummeled and driven to the ground. The brawl was ugly, frightening and unwelcome. At the same time, the WBC needed anything to get things moving and get people talking about the tournament.
In 2006 and 2009, the WBC was largely ignored. Major leaguers were not interested in playing, and those who did show up did not seem to be playing with any urgency. The two favorites from the Western Hemisphere—the U.S. and the Dominican Republic—failed to make a splash.
Those first two Classics, for all the hard work put in (especially by the Japanese national team), seemed like works-in-progress, if even that. The whole process seemed like a failing experiment.
Fans wondered how the event would change, or if it would last. The idea of moving it to the middle of the season is not only a logistical nightmare. It’s not a solution to the problem. No other World Cup-style event (excluding men’s hockey in the Winter Olympics) happens during that sport’s professional season.
After the season seems like a better time to put the tournament, but it provides many of the same problems as having the WBC in the spring. Injuries will take a number of players out of the running, players involved in the World Series (as well as the Japan Series) might be too exhausted to play, and other players may be too worried about their contract statuses.
The fact is that March is the best time—if not the only time—that this tournament can be held. That it coincides with spring training is going to be an issue that could cause players to turn down invites. (Though that could change if a player uses a great WBC to launch a breakout MLB season.) March also works well for the WBC because it comes during a lull in the sporting calendar. March Madness still doesn’t start for over a week. There will likely not be baseball this meaningful until late September. Most playoff-bound NBA and NHL teams can already pencil themselves into the postseason.
Who joins Japan and the Netherlands in the WBC semifinal?
More than a rescheduling or an injection of star power, what the World Baseball Classic needs is buzz. Baseball needs people to start up casual conversations by asking if anyone saw the WBC games over the weekend. The tournament needs to get people’s attention as anything other than an idea.
A round and a half into the 2013 WBC, this one is starting to attract people’s attention. Brawls. Close games. Upsets. There’s still more to come.
The USA is now in a group with Puerto Rico (whom the U.S. plays tomorrow night), Italy and the Dominican Republic. This leads to the possibility of a huge matchup that could amplify the WBC buzz to new levels: USA-Dominican Republic. That has not yet happened in the WBC’s short history.
What makes a USA-Dominican game so intriguing is the level of major league talent, regardless of who isn’t there. Those two squads have the most recognizable names in the tournament (to Americans at least), names we see on a regular basis from April through October.
Oh, almost forgot: That pool, involving the USA and two Caribbean nations? It takes place in Miami. So the United States is going to play Puerto Rico (and possibly the Dominican Republic) in Miami, where the crowd might be more mixed than the words “host nation” imply. Expect Marlins Stadium to be as full as you’re going to see it for a long time.
In a sport in which the number three is often unlucky (three strikes, three outs), the WBC is giving more truth to the adage, “the third time’s the charm.”