A Touch of Class

A Touch of Class

For baseball fans the next fortnight will be one to savour. That is because the World Baseball Classic makes its post Covid return, following its cancellation in 2021. The Classic assembles the best players on the planet all proud to represent their country in what is the most unpredictable tournament in World sport. Fans from America, Asia and the Caribbean will all be hoping their team becomes the fifth World Champion. Here is your guide by volunteer journalist Brian Salmon to what will be a fascinating, unmissable competition.

What is the World Baseball Classic?

It is effectively, the World Cup of Baseball, but with some twists. In a sport that is very much club driven, it is the top international baseball tournament outside the Olympics. The World Baseball Classic is a WBSC (World Baseball Softball Conferderation) sanctioned event, but it’s organised by Major League Baseball. However, unlike the World Cup in football which is allocated to one host country or region, the pool matches take place in geographically diverse stadiums, before the pool qualifiers fly to the United States for the knock out phase. Though the best players do turn out for their respective countries, they are not allowed to play every single game; as there are rules in place to prevent them feeling exhausted on their return to their clubs. The biggest surprise though is the unpredictability of the World Baseball Classic. In every edition so far, there have been shocks galore, as unfancied teams have beaten nations whose rosters are stacked with talent. It is a tournament where countries who traditionally do not do well in international sport, have a genuine opportunity to play in a medal game.

How did the World Baseball Classic come about?

There was a Baseball World Cup from 1938-2011, but apart from the last few years of its existence, it was strictly limited to amateur players. For the last few editions minor league professionals were allowed, but the lack of star names meant that few people cared about the tournaments, and even in gold medal games, attendances were woeful. The sport, together with softball had been included in the Olympics since the 1992 edition in Barcelona. However Major League Baseball’s repeated refusal to send its best players ultimately cost the game its automatic Olympic inclusion. This shock forced a radical rethink; Major League Baseball together with its Japanese equivalent Nippon Professional Baseball and the international federation (what is now the World Baseball Softball Confederation) proposed a new prestigious international tournament, attempting to win back their coveted Olympics spot. The inaugural tournament was played in 2006 and for the first time, baseball had an international tournament that matched the values of The World Games. It featured the best professional players, it was sustainable as it utilised existing baseball stadiums, and it was inclusive with Puerto Rico and Japan hosting group games as well as the USA. Also like The World Games, the first edition had a California connection. The World Games was first staged in Santa Clara in 1981, the World Baseball Classic’s first final was in San Diego.

What is the format of the World Baseball Classic in 2023?

Even though it is a relatively recent invention and has only had four editions, the event has really captured the imagination of baseball fans across the globe. This year’s classic is set to be the biggest and best to date and will undoubtedly be the most watched single sport event in 2023, for any member of The World Games family. The Classic used to be divided into four groups of four, but the fifth edition is going to include a record 20 countries, with the addition of the expansion teams. There will still be four groups, the best two teams from each pool advancing to the quarterfinals, which for the first time will be played as a straight knockout tournament. The first game will be in Taichung, Chinese Taipei on March 8th. The Tokyo groups will commence a day later, whilst the two American groups based in Phoenix and Miami will have to wait until the 11th for their first pitch. Tokyo will stage the first two quarterfinals, with Miami hosting all the other knockout games including the final on March 23rd.

Who is competing?

In pool A, it will be hosts Chinese Taipei, The Netherlands who surprisingly have featured in the last two bronze medal games, Cuba who were finalists in the first edition, Italy who made the second round in 2013 and Panama. In pool B, two time winners Japan take on hosting duties, they welcome their perennial rivals (and opponent in the 2013 final) South Korea. The pair of them are unlikely to be troubled by Australia and China and debutants Czech Republic, but this being the Baseball World Classic, one never knows!

In pool C, it is reigning champions USA looking to defend their title against the likes of Canada and Mexico. The Americans can take nothing for granted as both nations have beaten them in the past at the World Baseball Classic. Colombia also have the potential to surprise. The team most likely to enjoy their time in Arizona, however the results go are debutants Great Britain: they actually won the first World Cup in 1938, when their only opponents were the USA! Appropriately, Pool D in Miami has a very Hispanic flavour, the only none Spanish speaking team are Israel who surprisingly won all their first round matches on their 2017 debut. The most competitive group sees former champions Dominican Republic match up again with their opponents in the 2013 final, Puerto Rico. Venezuela shocked the USA in 2009 winning the bronze medal match and Nicaragua will be hoping their fans have something to cheer on their tournament debut.

Who will be the star players?

The World Baseball Classic is renowned for the big names who turn out with pride to represent their countries. The tone was set in the very first edition, when future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter (New York Yankees) and Ken Griffey Jr (Seattle Mariners) both were chosen for the Team of the Tournament. Despite their presence, USA did not do so well in the inaugural tournament, somehow losing to both Canada and Mexico. Yadi Molina’s (St Louis Cardinals) exceptional fielding ability helped Puerto Rico reach the last two finals. Albert Pujols, the latest member of the 700 Club ( 700 home runs in the MLB) turned out for the Dominican Republic. His fellow countryman Bryan Abreu could be the athlete to take away the 2023 Classic for the Most Valuable player. He pitched a very rare playoffs strike out to help the Houston Astros to the 2022 World Series. The other superstars expected to shine are normally team mates at the Los Angeles Angels. American captain Mike Trout probably the best hitter at the Classic, and Japan's Shohei Ohtani, who bats as well as he pitches.

What will the impact of the World Baseball Classic be?

The tournament is already on course to be a resounding success- many games are sold out, so a fiesta atmosphere is guaranteed. The nature of baseball where welll matched teams can produce tense finishes, means the sport will gain new fans. In the closing innings, every pitch has to be perfect; every batter has to make contact. There is going to be plenty of drama, and if the fifth World Baseball Classic is like its predecessors, there will be shock results. The tournament, like recent editions of The World Games, will help to strengthen the profile of top class international Baseball and Softball. The Softball completion at Birmingham 2022, drew the biggest crowds of the Alabama edition of The World Games A capacity crowd saw USA take gold and revenge for their Tokyo 2021 Olympics Final defeat against host nation Japan. Though Baseball and Softball have not been included in the sports program for Paris 2024, there is every chance of featuring at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. The World Baseball Classic like The World Games and the exciting Tokyo tournaments will strengthen the case for the sport to return to the Olympics. Let's play ball.

Brian Salmon for The World Games

 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN in 2025.