Two weeks ago I found myself in Maryvale, where I spent my lunch hour watching the Brewers host Team Great Britain in a warm-up game leading up to World Baseball Classic pool play. Each of the ten ballparks in the Cactus League had a chance to host one warm-up game on March 8 or 9. Since MLB already had spring training going, they slipstreamed the games into the schedule.
Maryvale isn’t a sexy neighborhood, so I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd. Yet it was so sparse it almost seemed like someone forgot to get the word out. The American Family Fields staff was on hand as usual, and I parked at a nearby shopping center and walked on as I’ve done in the past. The crowd felt more like a Fall League game than a Spring Training game with much lower stakes.
A week later, I went to Chase Field watch Pool C play between Team Colombia and Team USA. The stakes were much higher this time, as Mexico already advanced, making this game an elimination game. Colombia pitched well enough to stay within striking distance, but Trea Turner had a late home run to push the Americans over the top.
Team USA survived a slugfest with Venezuela and then overwhelmed Cuba, while Japan breezed all the way through to the final. The knockout (playoff) rounds were held in Miami at LoanDepot Park, which was largely full thanks to fans from Latin America and Japan bringing their own brand of fandom to the proceedings. Watching it on TV, it dawned on me that these domes are perhaps the best types of venues for the WBC. As much as I love ballparks old and new, I’ll be the first to admit that Americans are often too caught up in the aesthetic appeal of a ballpark instead of the actual baseball on the field. A six-month regular season will do that. Boring games will do that. I like how the new rules changes are speeding up the pace of games, though it’ll take at least a couple months to understand if they truly work as intended.
The day of the championship game between Japan and the USA, I checked to see what the radio broadcast schedule was as the game was going to start during my evening commute. I learned that there were no terrestrial radio broadcasts. Instead, MLB chose to have Sirius/XM handle the radio side just as Fox and its FS1/FS2 networks covered the TV side. I brought up the TuneIn Radio app and got the 7-day Premium trial, which led me to the WBC broadcast helmed by the always solid Giants play-by-play man Dave Flemming and former A’s first baseman Yonder Alonso as the color commentator. They were doing the international broadcast, which thanks to their familiar voices felt comfortable. Then in the middle of the first inning something strange happened: nothing.
The broadcast cut to the break after the USA’s uneventful first. Instead of the expected commercials from the usual suspects, all I heard was a live mic capturing crowd noise peppered with PA announcements and music. It was a throughly refreshing revelation, so pleasant that when I got home and turned on the TV broadcast on FS1 I quickly muted the TV and listened to the radio stream instead. Tension ratcheted up inning after inning until the classic confrontation between Shohei Ohtani, who was brought in to close for Japan, and Mike Trout, who ended up being the final hitter for the United States. It wasn’t certain that the two famed stars would have the chance to face each other, yet they did in the most dramatic moment possible. Ohtani struck out Trout, cementing his place as the WBC MVP and the best, most unique baseball player in decades.
Throughout the last 3 weeks, the WBC felt unusually underhyped. MLB controls it, operates it, and promotes it inside and outside the United States. MLB doesn’t want to risk its players’ health too much, however, and it fears the WBC outshining the normal operation of the baseball seasons for MLB and other pro leagues. That’s why MLB isn’t considering budging from holding the WBC in March, despite the obvious appeal of holding the final games on a semi-regular basis in the summer, in lieu of the All Star Game and festivities. On the media side, ESPN gave it rudimentary attention and sent reporters, though the coverage wasn’t nearly as much as it would be if ESPN was broadcasting the tournament with its gargantuan promotional machine. The terrestrial radio silence may not seem like much in the 21st Century. But baseball’s a 20th Century sport, and I’m sure there were plenty of people who had no idea about the coverage black hole. For them, the tournament might as well have not happened.
So what you have is an event MLB promoted like crazy to overseas fans in hopes of bringing in some tourist dollars, which is exactly what happened. There were sizable groups of fans from Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as Korea and upstart Australia. As for America, MLB is still of two minds on how to treat the WBC. If you go to MLB’s website now, you’ll see a few mentions of the WBC. It’s not a fixture. It’s strange because like the Spring Training games, WBC games are essentially exhibitions. They matter more to certain audiences, and MLB certainly saw that interest on display. The problem is that MLB has already shifted gears to wrapping up Spring Training and getting ready for Opening Day. They’re in a hurry to show off their “new and improved” product. This pattern is likely to continue in 2026, when the US will host both the WBC and the World Cup. There is absolutely no chance of MLB getting blown away in terms of media attention, so they’ll keep the WBC in March instead of July, which is when the World Cup knockout rounds will occur.
And that’s fine. I came away much more optimistic about baseball than I was last fall. Baseball is in fact not dying, and MLB is trying to evolve despite itself. My optimism has much more to do with baseball transcending borders and oceans, which might be the best outcome of all. I’m a bit wistful knowing that there’s a good chance that the next edition of the WBC will be over-commercialized and overhyped just like every other major sporting event. At least I had three weeks of bliss, on which I will always look back fondly.