We might finally have the last piece of the puzzle needed to make the United States actually care about the World Baseball Classic.
Maybe not; maybe it’ll still take another couple times around, and maybe it’ll never happen at all. Maybe for the US, the WBC will always be a weird also-ran international competition that happens during spring training in which the country responsible for inventing modern baseball always competes, but never wins, because they’re not actually trying. There are certainly a number of Americans — players and fans alike — who still hold that view, loudly and proudly.
They might have a more difficult time of it after last night, and specifically, this:
This is the defining moment of American international baseball ever since the Olympics stopped carrying the sport — and it’s probably better than most anything any of those Team USA rosters did either. The Americans won the gold medal in 2000 against Team Australia, but like most every American roster before the World Baseball Classic came around, that team (and the teams that played against them) were composed of minor-leaguers, veterans without a major league club and the occasional college player. The most relevant player on that 2000 roster, for instance, was a 22-year-old Roy Oswalt, who had yet to make his major league debut.
The standards of competition are much higher in the World Baseball Classic, and that means the moments are much sweeter. Adam Jones is a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field, catching a ball off the bat of Manny Machado, a two-time Gold Glove winner and arguably one of the three best players in the world (and his Orioles teammate), hitting a pitch thrown by Tyler Clippard, a…okay, a fairly mundane reliever on the tail end of his career who will probably find a role in middle relief from here on out. But whereas Clippard would have been a top player on the old Olympic or even early WBC American teams, here he was a guy that was put into the game in a questionable spot because the American manager, Jim Leyland, was managing like he was in spring training and had to get everyone playing time.
Managing like that almost cost the Americans their trip to the semifinals — but instead Jones, who has been much-maligned as overrated defensively (including, full disclosure, by this writer), pulled off probably the greatest fielding play of his career to-date. In an ‘exhibition’ game, in mid-March.
The United States went on to win the game, 6-3, eliminating a Dominican Republic team that won the tournament last year and had already bought fully into the idea of competing in the WBC with the highest-level players giving the highest-level dedication. The only Dominican player who was truly notable in his absence was Johnny Cueto, and even Cueto had approached the team and put it out to the media that he might be willing to fly out to join the team for the finals, should things progress that far.
That’s the next step for the United States, too: getting the guys who didn’t show up excited enough to join the team next time around, even if it’s only later in the tournament when they’re up to game speed (this is important for starting pitchers, who will still be easing into their workloads when the WBC starts but should be ready to go four or five innings by the time the semifinals and finals roll around).
That would help American starting pitching, which is the most glaringly weak section of their roster (you can put together something like four or five full rotations of American pitchers before getting to the guys Team USA is actually throwing out there; I’ve done it). And it might mean one startling thing that it’s hard to countenance being true, given traditional American dominance at the sport: it might actually be good for the World Baseball Classic if the United States wins.
Obviously, Puerto Rico or the Netherlands winning would be good for the tournament as well; Japan, who has already won twice out of the three times the WBC has been held, is the only arguable disappointment among the other three teams in the final rounds. But America was expected to do well in these tournaments, given the vast amount of major league talent to choose from — not having won it yet is more than a bit of a disappointment, and fuels some of the negativity about the WBC’s legitimacy. After all, nothing’s better for an event’s visibility in a country than that country winning it; see how pumped up the Dominican Republic fans were this time around.
A prolonged period of American dominance in the WBC probably wouldn’t be good for the tournament, but given the financial incentives to stay away, we’re unlikely to ever get that; there is a ceiling how far national pride can take you, when put up against the money-making opportunities of the regular season. But for people interested in growing this competition, the exciting brand of baseball that Team USA is playing is a great way to sell the WBC, despite — or even because of — a roster playing with one hand behind its back.