PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
By the end of the World Baseball Classic, after Team USA emerged with its first title in the 12-year history of the controversial tournament, Marcus Stroman emerged as not only the Most Valuable Player, but the WBC’s most enthusiastic cheerleader.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Stroman, on loan from the Blue Jays. “And I’ll be back in four years to defend the title.”
Stroman, the former Patchogue-Medford star, carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Wednesday’s championship game against Puerto Rico before Angel Pagan’s leadoff double cut short an outing that USA manager Jim Leyland eventually would have stopped anyway. Buried beneath all that excitement is one of the Classic’s weaknesses — a strict, non-negotiable pitch count — and Stroman was at 73 at the time of his exit, still 22 from the limit.
Even so, there was zero chance that Leyland, the longtime manager turned MLB executive, wanted to put any additional strain on one of the Blue Jays’ top young players — and a pitcher, no less. Especially in a game Team USA won, 8-0. The WBC is faced with the impossible task of walking a tightrope between what is supposed to be a catalytic event for the sport’s popularity overseas and the integrity of the 162-game regular season, a conflict that spawns a flawed, if not an entertaining two-week spectacle that spans two baseball-loving continents.
The Classic has plenty of critics, including many former and current players, who choose to focus on the potential injury risk for what’s basically another series of exhibition games jammed between the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. It’s a legitimate argument. Just look at what happened to the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius, who is expected to miss the month of April with a bruised shoulder suffered while playing for the Netherlands. Or Mark Teixeira (wrist) and David Wright (rib-cage muscle) back in 2013.
But those who dismiss the WBC as some fly-by-night operation, with little appeal to the masses, may have to rehink that stance. The tournament set a new attendance record this year by surpassing the million mark (1,086,720) for the first time, and showing considerable growth from 2013 (885,212). More importantly, the title game attracted 3.1 million American TV viewers, and 2.3 million to MLB Network alone, making it the second biggest draw to the 2016 NLDS Game 2 between the Giants and Cubs.
People are tuning in, and to MLB’s decision-makers, from commissioner Rob Manfred on down, that’s the bottom line. The Classic isn’t meant to solve our universal health care issues. It’s another vehicle to expand baseball across a number of different media platforms, and the more countries, the better. While it’s debatable how much Team USA’s title will move the needle stateside for any future events — other nations take the WBC far more seriously — the Classic is gaining a momentum that many believed it would fail to do.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am about the way this event has gone,” Manfred said before Wednesday’s championship at Dodger Stadium. “You have rosters literally overflowing with the best players in the world. 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. I mean, just really amazing.
“The WBC has been a phenomenal property for the MLB Network. We’ve set ratings records and broken them for non-playoff games. We broadcast WBC games, I think it was to 182 countries around the world.”
Manfred’s comments are tempered by those of players who weren’t on board, like the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who noted, with some disdain, that the WBC wasn’t going to help him get to the World Series or Hall of Fame. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper also were conspicuous by their absence. It was interesting, however, to hear Seth Lugo — a surprise star for Puerto Rico — gush about the Classic upon returning Friday to the Mets’ clubhouse, speaking only a few feet from Syndergaard’s locker. Would he tell others to play next time, in 2021?
“Absolutely,” said Lugo, his short-cropped hair still dyed blonde from Puerto Rico’s team-bonding exercise. “It was an experience you never forget for the rest of your life.”
Going in, there was the usual skepticism for a tournament that uproots stars from spring training — and robs paying customers of the chance to see them in March. But the exit reviews seemed overwhelmingly positive, and maybe could be improved, if the Classic is able to make some adjustments going forward.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi had some insightful thoughts earlier this month, suggesting the tournament start a week later — giving pitchers another critical week to build arm strength — and then play the final four during an extended All-Star week. The championship could be on a Wednesday, followed by the All-Star workout day, and the game itself on Friday. Everyone then would get the weekend off before the season resumes on Monday.
Girardi’s plan would allow pitchers to be more stretched out, capable of going longer in games and, presumably, better protected against injury. While it still has logistical headaches, there really is no perfect time to stage the WBC, and this year’s event came off about as well as anyone could have hoped — complete with Team USA’s win, which might serve as a recruiting tool for the future.
“Up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States,” Leyland said. “But in talking to our players, I know they’re going to spread the word. I’ve had some players already tell me this is the greatest experience of their life. So hopefully, you know, we can get guys to play. But we had the right players. We had players that wanted to be here, and that’s the kind of players you want.”
Leyland joked that his mission, as Team USA manager, was “trying to make America great again.” In that sense, he succeeded. As for the lasting impact, we’ll have to see what the WBC looks like years from now, in the months leading up to the 2021 event.
“At the beginning of spring training, we were thrilled with the U.S. roster,” Manfred said. “We think it’s the best one we’ve ever had. I think the way they’ve played supports that view. And 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. Not only for the U.S., but for all the countries.”
2006Daisuke Matsuzaka, PJapan
2013Robinson Canó, 2B DR
2017Marcus Stroman, P USA