WBC 2017: Una fiesta con sabor

Three ways the games changed baseball in March

The party is over and we’re sorry to see it end.

The World Baseball Classic in 2017 was an undeniable late-night success. While Puerto Rico’s exhilarating run ended Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium with an 8-0 defeat to Team USA, the tournament overall was a thrilling kaleidoscope of emotion, passion and big moments.

The WBC opened eyes. It served as a gentle reminder that pelota is a global game, played with joy and great skill in different corners of the world and confirmed, for new fans, that there is no right way, but many ways to pitch, hit and run. As #LosNuestros showed at the end by doffing their caps to #ForGlory, you can play hard and wear your heart on your sleeve and still respect the game and your opponent.

Let’s look back at how these three weeks forever changed how we will view baseball in March.

The Americas’ game, not America’s game

The fourth edition of the WBC set records, drawing 51,565 fans to the final and nearly 1.1 million in all while generating more than $100 million in revenues and attracting millions of viewers worldwide.

More importantly, the WBC finally took root; both Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association all but confirmed that the tournament will continue, most likely in 2021, after baseball retakes the Olympic stage in Tokyo in 2020.

“We’ve had crowds that not only were record-number crowds, but had passion that it’s hard to think where you saw something that good the last time,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Just really amazing. And best of all, the games on the field have been absolutely unbelievable, compelling. Our players at their best, combined with a little nationalism, has really been a great thing.”

Until now, this concept seemed foreign in United States ballfields. Meanwhile, in places where baseball is life like Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela, kids grow up with a dream of playing for their countries.

But just like we saw with soccer during the 1994 World Cup held here, the 2017 WBC forced Americans to view sports within a global context. Instead of lamenting the American stars that decided to skip the event, fans and media celebrated those who decided to partake.

Roberto Salvador Klapisch, national baseball columnist for The Record (NJ), admitted, “Yep, I was (very) wrong about the WBC.”

“Signing up for this, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins outfielder. “The way this team came together and just went out every night and did anything we can to win, it was special to be a part of. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”

No right way to play

Unfortunately, for some fun is a dirty word in baseball. Not quite everyone has embraced bat flips, chest thumps and other natural expressions of joy. Ian Kinsler, Team USA’s and Detroit Tigers’ second baseman, stirred raw emotions on social media before the game with a quote in The New York Times in which he seemingly disparaged Latin American players, saying “I hope kids watching the W.B.C. can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays.”

If pitchers can change speeds and batters calibrate their swings, by now players should know that they need to articulate their thoughts more clearly. Kinsler, surprised by the firestorm, later clarified his comments with ESPN.com, insisting that “Everyone should be celebrated” and adding, “Everyone has their own style! That’s all I was saying.”

If anything, this WBC forced teams, officials, players, broadcasters, writers and even the fans to reconsider fading axioms and adages of the game. Baseball made a significant symbolic gesture on Wednesday night when it allowed the ESPN Deportes’ Spanish-language production of the final to also air on ESPN 2 and had the Commissioner visit the broadcast booth.

Earlier in the evening in the MLB Network English-language booth, during Kinsler’s first at-bat, Manfred addressed the initial comments by stating unequivocally that “Those unwritten rules are going to change with the diversity of the league, and we should celebrate that.”

Not lost was the irony that Kinsler opened Team USA’s barrage with a two-run home run in the third inning. And that three Latinos played for the United States: starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, whose mother is from Puerto Rico; third baseman Nolan Arenado, whose father is Cuban and mother Puerto Rican; and first baseman Eric Hosmer, whose mother is Cuban.

Yes, it took a ‘Half-Rican’ to beat the undefeated ‘Quarter-Rican’ Seth Lugo  and the rest of #LosRubios. Stroman, who is short and animated, was named MVP for not allowing a hit in his first six innings of work. At one point, he shimmied on the mound.

Puerto Rico’s blondes had more fun

Emotion is obviously in the eye of the beholder. What is undeniable is that so-called showboating galvanized a small island of 3.5 million residents mired in an acute economic crisis and massive brain drain as people leave looking for work and better opportunities.

A whimsical gesture by second baseman Javy Báez and shortstop Francisco Lindor, both who bleached their hair blonde at the beginning of the tournament, turned into a fashion statement that unified the team and the country. Stores and beauty shops ran out of peroxide while crime, especially murders, dropped to close to zero, just like last summer when tennis player Mónica Puig won Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal ever.

“We are bringing the whole country together,” said Lindor.

In an honored Latino tradition, let’s use food to sum up the argument. “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s,’’ Danny Duffy, a Team USA and Kansas City pitcher, told USA Today.

“Everybody has a different way to celebrate, a different way to show their passion. That’s what made this tournament so fun, watching everyone having their different style. This was just a different animal.’’

The WBC is here to stay. And hopefully to grow in stature. Different players, writers and broadcasters suggested ways to improve the format and reach. For example, said Team USA and San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, interrupt the regular season for two weeks, what the NHL used to do for the Olympics, and play it in July.

As we said in our previous WBC roundup, let’s hold the world championship every two years and open with the All-Star Game.

Imagine the Dominican Republic vs. USA in Yankee Stadium with the whole Bronx cheering. Mexico and Puerto Rico filling up Wrigley Field with mariachis and rumberos. Colombia against Venezuela in a face-off of arepa-loving countries at Miami’s Marlins Park.

We’ll never want the party to end.

Featured image: Alex Trautwig / Major League Baseball / Getty Images and Matt Brown / Major League Baseball / Getty Images