World Baseball Classic Is Sport's Answer To Soccer's World Cup
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Miami last night the Dominican Republic beat the U.S. 3 to 1 to advance to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic. And if you're not sure what the World Baseball Classic is, you're not alone. To help explain, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Hey there, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: All right. So what is this tournament? I don't know if I'm behind the times. Should I be paying attention to this?
FATSIS: Yeah, I think you should be paying attention to it. The World Baseball Classic is baseball's answer to soccer's World Cup. Major league baseball created it. It was first held in 2006, again in 2009. And the idea is to have a genuine world championship featuring the sport's best players, but this is also obviously about business, about spreading baseball beyond its traditional locales in the United States, Latin America, Far East.
CORNISH: Now obviously it's not as big a deal at this point as the World Cup, but how - I mean, what's the success of the World Baseball Classics so far?
FATSIS: You know, I think it's off to a great start. The tournament does have some flaws, and I'll get to those in a minute but I am all for any event that brings together a lot of the sport's best athletes and lets flag-waving bloom. And it does work conceptually in baseball. The U.S. is the big, bad inventor of the game. Countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Mexico, they're passionate about baseball.
There's also the geopolitical anomaly of Cuba, which does participate. And there's the anomaly of seeing baseball teams take the field in jerseys that say Italy or Brazil or Israel on them. I've loved that ever since I covered the Greek baseball team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
CORNISH: All right. So, status update. Where do we stand with the current tournament?
FATSIS: Well, this thing started with 28 countries last year. There were qualifying rounds that weeded out the likes of the Czech Republic and Thailand. Sixteen teams joined in pool play around the world last month. Venezuela was eliminated and there were stories about the team mourning the death of the country's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, though some of the multimillionaire major leaguers on Venezuela's roster declined to comment. There was a brawl in a game between Canada and Mexico.
The U.S. has one last chance now to reach the semifinals. It's playing Puerto Rico in Miami, as we speak. The Dominican Republic, as you mentioned, is in the semis. Japan, which won the first two World Baseball Classics, also is in. The biggest surprise so far has been another semifinalist, the Netherlands, which beat Cuba twice to advance.
CORNISH: Twice. What, the Netherlands? Are you being serious?
FATSIS: Yeah, the Netherlands, and it's not as surprising as it might sound. Baseball is popular enough there that a 29,000-seat stadium is being built outside of Amsterdam. Major League Baseball games are likely to be played there in a year or two as exhibitions maybe, maybe regular season. The Dutch have beaten Cuba five times in a row and the team's roster includes several major leaguers, like the veteran outfielder Andrew Jones, the Dodgers' closer Kenley Jansen.
All of those players, like much of the Dutch roster, were born in Curasol, the Caribbean Island that is a constituent country of the Netherlands and where baseball is the main sport.
CORNISH: But realistically, I mean, how high is the measurable level of interest in this tournament?
FATSIS: Well, look, here's where we get to the flaws or at least the issues. If you view it through U.S. glasses, it's not great. Low numbers on television, on MLB's cable network, which is showing all of the games, including the semifinals on Sunday and the final on Monday. But this is not about the U.S. We've got record numbers on TV in Taiwan. The tournament has been huge in Japan.
Competitively, the main problem is that while dozens of big leaguers are playing, an awful lot of stars aren't, particularly for the U.S. Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Bryce Harper, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, David Price, Stephen Strasburg. Everyone's got a reason for not playing but I think we're going to see some changes in the World Baseball Classic down the road to get more of these guys to play.
My suggestion, hold the qualifying rounds now during spring training and then have the quarter finals, semifinals and championship during an extended All Star break in July. That would be big and attention grabbing.
CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much.
FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up And Listen."