LOS ANGELES— Even before the United States took the field to face Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic championship on Wednesday night, Rob Manfred was confident that this sometimes troubled tournament had been a smashing success.
And after what Manfred calls the “watershed” achievement of the 2017 edition, the Major League Baseball Commissioner sees a promising future for the WBC.
“We’ve had crowds that not only were record-number crowds, but had passion that it’s hard to think where you saw something that good the last time,” Manfred said shortly before the first pitch at Dodger Stadium.
“Just really amazing. And best of all, the games on the field have been absolutely unbelievable, compelling. Our players at their best, combined with a little nationalism, has really been a great thing.”
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Manfred and players’ union head Tony Clark appear to be in complete agreement on the success of the fourth edition of the WBC, which set event attendance records and expanded its television reach as a unique worldwide platform for the game.
The executives are confident there will be a fifth WBC, most likely in 2021 after baseball makes its return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“I think when you have a tournament that gets the kind of traction that the 2017 edition did, it will make it easier to get players the next time around,” Manfred said. “Not only for the U.S., but for all the countries.”
The raucous crowds of costumed American fans and singing Puerto Rican supporters in Los Angeles for the final belied the WBC’s biggest problem, one that hasn’t been completely solved.
While the WBC sells out stadiums, garners strong television ratings and sparks baseball curiosity from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, the event still struggling to win over the U.S., which has hosted all four finals.
Although the likes of Mike Trout and Kris Bryant stayed in their big-league camps, the current American team is likable and entertaining, and it even reached the final for the first time this year.
Manager Jim Leyland believes his All-Star-laden group has begun the domestic transformation of the WBC from a novelty to a must-see event.
“I think we’ve at least been a small part of maybe putting this WBC on the map for the United States more so than in the past,” Leyland said. “I’m hoping in the future that a lot of the players have seen what’s happened here, and will be a little bit more excited about playing in this event.”
In the insular world of big-league American baseball, the international appeal of the WBC still was a tough sell this year to teams and players understandably preoccupied with their paying jobs. The quality of the U.S. roster has been the biggest obstacle in getting American fans to take the WBC seriously.
Yet Clark says many more players appreciated the WBC’s unique appeal after watching this tournament. Shortly after the opening games, he began getting calls and texts from players who wished they had taken advantage of the chance.
“The opportunity to wear your country across your chest is something, particularly if you haven’t experienced it before,” Clark said.
While the U.S. works on the proper formula for success, other nations are generating enormous benefits from the WBC. Puerto Rico is the latest team to get the bump after its charismatic collection of dyed-blond stars reached the final without losing a game.
After years of flagging interest in a once-popular sport on the island, manager Edwin Rodriguez sees “huge changes” in Puerto Rico’s baseball culture over the past eight years. He credits them partly to the nation’s WBC success in 2013 as the runner-up to the Dominican Republic.
“There’s more youngsters playing baseball,” Rodriguez said. “(In the previous) 10, 15 years, those good athletes, they were either playing baseball or volleyball or basketball, and now soccer.
“Right now, because we have so many talented young players in the big leagues, those very good athletes, when they get to that age of 15-, 16-year-olds, they’re more inclined to stay in baseball.”
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