By Victor Mather
For the first time in six years, the top players in professional baseball — and some hard-charging amateurs — are competing in the World Baseball Classic. The tournament began Tuesday night in Taiwan, with the Netherlands beating Cuba, 4-2, and if watching stars for the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres (and just about every other Major League Baseball team) compete in uniforms that say things like USA and Korea seems appealing (or at least more appealing than spring training games), here’s what to know:
When and where are the games?
The 20 teams that qualified for the tournament are divided into four groups, playing in Phoenix; Miami; Taichung, Taiwan; and Tokyo. Pool play continues through next Wednesday, March 15.
The top two teams from each group advance to knockout quarterfinals, then the final four is March 19-21 in Miami.
Twenty seems like a lot of teams. That’s the most ever in the WBC, up from 16 last time, in 2017. That means that in addition to the traditional baseball powerhouses, there’s room for first-timers like the Czech Republic, Britain and Nicaragua.
The Czech Republic? Britain? Baseball?
There are no Shohei Ohtanis on the Czech team, but the homegrown squad does have a 37-year-old firefighter on its pitching staff (who has been a two-way star for his team) and a reliever who doubles as the team’s publicity director. The top-ranked countries have New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers suiting up; Britain has a player from Swarthmore College.
Who won it last time?
The United States, which had not finished better than fourth in the other editions of the Classic, beat Puerto Rico in 2017 to take the title. The first chance for the United States to defend the title was supposed to come in 2021, but the tournament was postponed because of the pandemic.
How does the U.S. team look this time around?
The defending champion is looking good because of a strong lineup. The middle of the order is particularly intimidating with stars like Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and Pete Alonso.
Pitching is more of a question , but that is true of many of the teams and is compounded by rules that limit pitchers to 65 to 95 pitches, depending on the round.
The team’s expected ace, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, pulled out of the Classic last month, reportedly over an insurance issue.
Who are the other favorites?
The Dominican Republic, which won in 2013, is stacked again. A batting lineup that includes Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Rafael Devers is going to be terrifying, and not just to the likes of Israel and Nicaragua. Nelson Cruz, who is 42, and Robinson Canó, who is 40 and currently without a major league team, give the team stout leadership.
Venezuela is also loaded, with José Altuve, Miguel Cabrera and Ronald Acuña Jr. swinging the bats and a strong pitching staff that includes Pablo López, Martín Pérez, and Ranger Suárez.
Japan, the only two-time Classic winner, has a host of top players from Nippon Professional Baseball and a smattering of major leaguers, including Ohtani and pitcher Yu Darvish. Fans who have heard tales of the brilliance of Roki Sasaki are expecting to see the Japanese phenom pitch against major leaguers.
Other contenders include South Korea, Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico (break out the trumpets for Edwin Díaz), which opens play on Saturday at noon Eastern Time against Nicaragua in Miami (Pool D). Puerto Rico is managed by the now-retired Yadier Molina, whose roster includes the aforementioned Díaz, Francisco Lindor, Eddie Rosario, Javier Báez, Enrique “Kiké” Hernández, Christian Vázquez and Martín Maldonado.
How can I watch?
Fox holds the rights, and the games will be split between Fox, FS1, FS2 and the Tubi streaming platform. The semifinals and final will be on FS1.
How is this different from the Olympics?
The Tokyo Olympics took place during the 2021 major league season, so star players based in North America did not participate. As a result, the lineups at the Classic are significantly stronger. Moreover, baseball will not be included at the 2024 Olympics and faces an uncertain future beyond that. At this point, the Classic is the pinnacle of the international game, and the sport hopes to continue to develop it as its version of the World Cup.
How big a deal is this?
You might ask the players. No one’s saying it’s bigger than the World Series, but over the years, many players from around the world have shown significant enthusiasm for playing.
When the Dominican Republic won the Classic in 2013, the players raced onto the field for flag-waving celebrations, then headed to the DR for a parade.
Even the supposedly jaded American players rushed from the dugout in 2017, gestured at the USA on their jerseys and celebrated with a bald eagle statue that had been their mascot. “We had a goal — to put the USA on top of the baseball world where it belongs, and we did exactly that,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
As for 2023, Trout, who skipped the previous Classic, said: “That’s the whole reason I signed up, trying to win this thing. There is nothing else. Anything else is a failure.”
That is a sentiment unlikely to be expressed at the Chicago Cubs-Kansas City Royals spring training game in Surprise, Arizona, the same day as this year’s final.
Today’s Games (all times Eastern)
China at Japan (5 a.m., FS1)
Italy at Cuba (6 a.m., Tubi)
Czech Republic at China (10 p.m., Tubi)
Cuba at Panama (11:30 p.m., FS1)
Panama 12, Chinese Taipei 5
Australia at Korea (10 p.m.)
Panama at Netherlands (11 p.m.)
Netherlands 4, Cuba 2