The World Baseball Classic begins this weekend with games in Japan and Taiwan, and I’ll watch the tournament because it’s baseball and the games are more meaningful than what’s going on in spring training in Florida and Arizona. I’ll watch because it’s a collection of many great players representing their countries, and that’s pretty neat. And I’ll watch because if a sporting event involves a Team USA, I’d prefer that it win, whether it’s in baseball or basketball or a soapbox derby. But I won’t have much invested in it, despite the fact that I very much like baseball and very much like rooting for America to win things. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case, and I’ve figured it out: Olympic hockey has ruined all other international events like this for me.
I’ve written before why Olympic hockey is so wonderful, but to recap: A number of countries have a legitimate chance to win because the talent is so spread out, all the best professional players take part and really care about the outcome, and there’s a certain cachet associated the Olympics. The last of these isn’t a dealbreaker — though it doesn’t help the WBC’s case that it’s an irregularly staged American creation. (So far, it’s been held in 2006, 2009, and 2013. If this were a fourth-grade math question, I’d guess that the next one will take place in 2018.)
Those first two criteria are dealbreakers, though. Baseball fits the first one: Talented professionals come from all over the globe, and a number of countries should have a realistic chance of winning it all in a given year. (Contrast this with basketball, where it’s still a major upset if the United States loses, because there’s such a high concentration of stars here.)
But the World Baseball Classic doesn’t meet the second of those criteria. Exciting stars like Justin Verlander and Mike Trout won’t play in the tournament, choosing instead to focus on their big-league teams. It’s a reasonable enough choice — they feel a duty to their employers — but it waters down the talent pool during the tournament and fundamentally changes what we’re all watching. We’re not following a tournament designed to determine the country with the best national baseball team. We’re following a tournament designed to determine the winner of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything it could be.
There are other major international sporting events that matter, of course, but something like soccer’s World Cup is a slightly different animal, at least to American fans who don’t get to watch all of the sport’s best players in North American leagues on an everyday basis. As an American sports nut who follows the major North American sports leagues, I'm part of the target audience for the WBC or Olympic hockey, which isn't totally true for the World Cup.
It’s a tricky thing to disrupt the normal flow of a league's season to stage a tournament like the World Baseball Classic, but the result, in this case, is an imperfect product. We’ve seen what an international tournament involving the pros we watch on a daily basis can look like, but we’ll have to wait for the puck to drop in Sochi to see it again.