World Baseball Classic
The crowd of over 54,000 at Dodger Stadium was on its feet in the tenth inning, chanting and yelling, banging orange-and-blue Thunderstix as they watched the great Ichiro spoil pitch after pitch with two on, two out, and a full count. Half the world away, 15,000 people in Seoul's Jamsil Stadium watched just as raptly on the scoreboard feed, as did millions of other baseball fans at home in South Korea, Japan, the United States, and all around the planet.
It was not the World Series they were watching but the final of the second World Baseball Classic (WBC), and the game they saw would showcase baseball at its finest. Plucky South Korea had rallied to tie and nearly win the contest against the defending champion Japanese with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. In the tenth, Ichiro, who had been unaccountably contained for most of the tournament, battled through an eight-pitch at-bat before lining his fourth hit of the game and giving Japan its second consecutive WBC title, 5-3. Even the usually imperturbable outfielder seemed awed by the magnitude of what he had done under such pressure.
"I kept thinking of all the things I shouldn't think about," Ichiro told the world press after the game. "Usually, I cannot hit when I think about all those things. This time, I got a hit. Maybe I surpassed myself."
It was a thrilling conclusion to a competition that had become a surprise hit around the world. Baseball has been an international game since at least 1849, when Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., brought his old New York Knickerbockers ball and rulebook with him to what was then the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. Touring American teams played under the shadows of the Pyramids in the nineteenth century, made regular postseason trips to Japan in the twentieth, and frequently trained in the Caribbean. Baseball quickly became the national pastime of countries throughout East Asia and Latin America, and a favorite even in European countries such as soccer-mad Italy.
Japan vs. Cuba in the 2006 World Baseball Classic
Final Moments of the 2006 World Baseball Classic
Yet until 2006, no independent world competition of professional baseball players had ever taken place. The first World Baseball Classic that March served as testament to the enhanced ability of the management of major-league baseball and the Players' Association to work in common purpose. Together, the players and owners hammered out the details of the tournament, and negotiated the concept through a labyrinth of national and international baseball federations, and some formidable logistics.
The result was an immediate success. Over 740,000 fans from 48 states and 15 countries filled parks from Tokyo to Los Angeles, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, selling out 16 of the 39 games. Millions more watched on television, with the WBC broadcast in 10 languages to 205 countries, as the Japanese national team managed by the legendary Sadaharu Oh defeated Cuba, 10-6, in the final.
The 2009 competition witnessed an even greater outpouring of interest, as attendance cleared the 800,000 mark, television viewership shot up 14 percent, and the number of sponsors more than doubled. The Rodgers Centre in Toronto and Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City were added as venues, while teams from the likes of China and South Africa joined the traditional baseball powers and the Netherlands squad – made up mostly of players from the Islands – scored two shocking upsets over the Dominican Republic in the course of three days.
The WBC had become the object of intense fan interest around the globe, and especially in parts of Latin America and the Far East. Enthusiasm lagged somewhat in the United States, due to the American team's exit before the final game, the tournament's commencement at the start of March, and the subsequent reluctance of some major stars to take part. Even so, the WBC served as a reaffirmation of the major leagues' pre-eminence in the game of baseball, with a majority of players from around the world attached to one organization or another in MLB, including Ichiro and the two-time Classic MVP, Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Baseball's own national world championship remained a far cry from soccer's World Cup, due to the natural limitations of a short, round-robin tournament in a sport that remains so intrinsically attached to the long season. But it offered a welcome boost at a time when baseball was dropped by the Olympics, after disputes over drug testing and the refusal of the majors to stop their season every four summers for the duration of the Olympic games. It also served – perhaps – as a first step toward an international team championship; a literal World Series. The next WBC is scheduled for 2013, with future tournaments to continue every four years from then on, and plans to add teams from countries everywhere.
By Kevin Baker