Baseball Belongs to the World

Japan World Baseball Classic
Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

By its very definition, the World Baseball Classic is a global baseball tournament; it’s right there in the name after all. It also feels obvious: Japan won the WBC for the third time, led by the best player on the earth, with a lineup and rotation and bullpen full of NPB All-Stars, and did so by beating Team USA and its All-MLB roster. The United States is the sport’s birthplace and the home of its premier professional league, but the game long ago left its borders, and through the WBC, we’ve gotten to see just how strange and great and flat-out joyful it can be around the world.

If you’ve watched the WBC before, you’ve known this, or at least gotten glimpses of it. If this WBC was your entry point into baseball beyond our shores, then you saw it damn near every day — not just through Japan overcoming its competition but through Mexico almost upsetting them on the way to that title, or through the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and Venezuela playing with their motors revved all the way up, or through just how many times the United States, with Mookie Betts and Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado (I could literally just list the entire ridiculous lineup), was pushed up against a wall and forced to fight its way free. That they did is a testament not just to the absurd collection of talent assembled on that roster but also to how good the rest of the world now is, and while it’s too early to declare the results of this year’s tournament to be a sea change, it’s also no overreaction to note that the WBC is a genuine competition with multiple viable contenders and not just a slower version of The Dream Team stomping wildly overmatched countries by double digits.

That fact can get lost given the understandably and disproportionately heavy focus that the United States and MLB receive in the history of the sport. Baseball in other countries is framed primarily as “Here’s when Americans introduced the game,” and foreign players are usually assessed on a basis of “When will they come to MLB, and how good will they be?” (We here at FanGraphs are as guilty of the latter as anyone else.) The rest of the world, in the minds of most American fans, exists as a feeder for MLB, and by default, the rest of the world will always be a step behind, producing greatness but never overtaking the United States as the center of the baseball universe.

By virtue of the money it makes and the level of competition, MLB is the peak of the mountain, and no number of WBC wins by Japan or any other country will change that. Tuesday night didn’t provide a sneak peak at our new NPB overlords. But forget about that hierarchy and its demand that the only game that matters is the one that takes place from April to October on one continent, or the blinkered myopia that unless a team is hoisting a World Series trophy at the end, then it was all for nothing. There’s more to baseball than the narrow confines of MLB, and the sport itself will only grow and improve the more America’s place atop the pyramid is challenged — the more that places like Japan and Cuba and Mexico but also Great Britain and Colombia and Taiwan produce star players at any level.

More than anything, that was the message of the WBC: baseball is global, and baseball is better by being global. No culture, society or art has ever been better for being closed off, or for shunning the wider world. Baseball is no different. Diversity breeds innovation, and innovation keeps the game from getting stale. We should celebrate the version of baseball in which America isn’t the unquestioned champion, in which other countries get to see themselves finding the kind of success that this country tends to monopolize when it comes to organized sports. Spread the joy and receive plenty in return; open the world and delight in who walks in the door. Be happy when the competition gets better and stronger and pushes us to do the same.

The 2023 WBC was roaring Dominican and Puerto Rican fans in Miami, sellout crowds in Taipei and Tokyo, unexpected star turns from Czech and Nicaraguan and British players. It was a sign of how far the game has spread and how deep it lies in the DNA of so many disparate places, with no common culture or connectors other than a bat, a ball, and four bases. It was a celebration of all the different ways that fans enjoy the game, and if you ever doubt that, think about the brass bands and ringing chants in the stands backing Japan or the Latin American fans turning LoanDepot Park into a week-long block party or the videos of people around the world, watching in bars or at home in the darkest hours of the night or at dawn or in the middle of the afternoon, tuning into an exhibition in which the only prize was national pride. It was proof that baseball is more than MLB.

You saw that made plain on Tuesday night, when Shohei Ohtani struck out Trout in a moment so laden with symbolism that you could probably build a book around it, or at least a short 30 for 30 episode. (Fittingly and deservingly, it was Ohtani who was named the tournament MVP.) It’s too soon to tell if that at-bat is one of those hinge points in history, around which baseball empires fall and new ones rise and the course of the sport’s existence is inexorably and irretrievably altered. But that moment doesn’t have to be so lofty or ponderous. It can simply be a reflection of a truth that the WBC made crystal clear: Baseball belongs to the world.

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1 year ago

MLB is still the premier league, and 28% of MLB players are foreign born, a percentage that ranks above the NBA and NFL. (It is similar but slightly behind the “non US and Canada” percentage of the NHL, with the NHL’s contribution of North American players almost entirely from countries in, or population mostly in, Europe. The percentage for the overall US population is 14%.) On average MLB probably comes the closest to “looking like America” of any major sport.

One can celebrate the world nature of the sport while still focusing on MLB because it is the sport at its highest level, which attracts the best athletes. Soccer is a world sport while people still have a disproportionate amount of fandom for European leagues, and MLB dominates baseball to a greater degree than any one European soccer league. (Unless someday a “Super League” takes off in Europe, but nationalistic instincts and understandable conservative backlash seems at least in the short term to prevent it from happening.)

It is doubtful that MLB would cease to be the premier league over any reasonable time frame, unless there were some kind of restrictions on foreign-born players, which I don’t see happening (or a cratering in the sport’s popularity here). Basketball is a global sport too, as is hockey, but the size (in population and money) of the North American market is a pretty large advantage for global sports, and global fans of any sport want to see the best teams.