The World Baseball Classic final is set, and it’s just about as good as it could have gotten: with their win last night over Japan, the MLB-star-filled Team USA will face Puerto Rico tonight at 8pm CT in Los Angeles for the title.
The Puerto Rican team – which features the most talked about player in the tournament, Javy Baez – is undefeated, and similarly features a bunch of MLB stars. Anything can happen in a single baseball game, so you’d be hard-pressed to call one or the other the favorite tonight. Here’s hoping it’s just a great game to cap off what has proved to be an absolutely delightful experience.
A big part of the reason, for me, why this WBC has been so enjoyable is seeing players from around the world so excited by the big moments in these exhibition games. The players care, and they’re all too happy to show it off.
And that’s why I had a beef with what MLB Network analyst John Smoltz said during the Netherlands/PR game, one of the best games you’ll ever see.
After Carlos Correa homered to tied the game in the first inning, and he and his teammates went nuts, Smoltz said this: “A lot of these guys are enjoying themselves … maybe they’ll get it out of their system in about two weeks.” The implication there being that MLB games are serious business, and you can’t go around dancing, screaming, and celebrating huge moments in MLB games.
Which, like, what? Why in the world would you hold that position in relation to the game of baseball?
Worse, Smoltz is far from alone in offering that view, and I certainly don’t mean to criticize him, specifically, or act like that one sentence offers the whole of his position on all things baseball. But it won’t be but a week into the 2017 season before we see some pitcher buzzing a player because he doesn’t like the way his teammate watched a home run the inning before. I don’t know how anyone could watch even 10 minutes of these WBC games and not immediately be struck by how much more fun the viewing experience is when the players feel free to express their passion in the moment.
Want to keep making long-term in-roads with younger fans, MLB? Get your veteran players, coaches, managers, and analysts on board with the idea that FUN IS FUN AND BASEBALL IS FUN.
Will Leitch got into this topic in greater depth in an absolute must-read. After rightly conceding that, of course, you can’t have this level of celebration throughout the entire regular season, Leitch describes the WBC as been something of a mirror for many fans who realize things could be even more enjoyable if the players let us feel their emotion in the moments as they are happening. A selection:
“Smoltz’s admonition, his instinctive urge to tamp down emotion whenever he sees it, has ruled baseball for several generations. This, not pace of play, not four pitches for an intentional walk, not extra innings, is the primary thing holding baseball back, why young people have been slower to embrace the game than, say, the NBA. Have you watched an NBA game recently? That game is all emotion. Russell Westbrook might be the most compelling athlete on the planet right now because he plays like his heart is about to leap out of his chest: He plays like he’s about to burst into flames. It’s infectious. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
And in baseball, the response to that emotion would be for Madison Bumgarner to whip a 95-mph-fastball by his chin, to establish some sort of fake semblance of “order.”
That’s the problem. And WBC ’17 has exposed this as bare as any event I can remember. The Classic is a joy because everybody cares so damn much and, more important, shows that they care. Baseball is not a private game. It exists because fans want to watch it. Emotion lets us all in. It lets us all be a part. It does not shut us out.”
Again, this level of emotion is not plausible – or even desirable – throughout a 162-game regular season. But surely, throughout that season, there are peaks and valleys (yes, the valleys, too) where every interested party would be better served by the players letting it all hang out.
I get that not every player is wired the same way, and I’m not asking for Kris Bryant to do a summersault after his next home run. In fact, it’s just the opposite: I just want players to know that it’s OK to be, in that moment, whatever they are feeling. Don’t force yourself to be something other than what you’re feeling. You get a thrill out of putting your head down after a homer and “acting like you’ve been there before”? Well, groovy. Be you. You rip a double into the gap to tie an April game in the 7th inning and want to shake your hips on second base? Hey, I’ll watch that. You walk a guy you know you should have had and want to slap your glove on the mound a few times to shake out that frustration? That’s what I’m feeling, too!
In sum, like Leitch, I just want to push back a bit on this long-standing cultural stoicism built into baseball. Yeah, we want our kids to be able to stay calm and focused enough to play and keep the game enjoyable for themselves and the other players, but we don’t need to raise them up to be baseball robots.
For everyone else: watch the WBC championship game tonight. You’ll see some of what I’m talking about, and you’ll probably have a heckuva lot of fun.