One of the original brains behind the World Baseball Classic says he and the organizers of the global tournament never intended the event to be a one-and-done showcase of elite baseball talent.
“This was not expected to be a one-off,” says Bob DuPuy, the former Major League Baseball president and chief operating officer. “(The 2006 WBC) was the inaugural version that would evolve as we learned about it, and learned what worked.”
Now, almost two decades after the 2006 version — which ended with Japan winning the championship game against Cuba — the 2023 World Baseball Classic is generating plenty of excitement and patriotic fervor, not to mention renewed criticism.
USA’s dramatic come-from-behind victory over Venezuela to propel the Americans into the ‘23 semifinals against Cuba, to the public outcry over injuries to stars like Edwin Diaz and Jose Altuve, there is no shortage of debate as to the tournament’s pros and cons.
But all anyone has to look at is a quote like the one from Team USA’s Trea Turner to see that the players treat the WBC with the same pride and passion as the MLB postseason.
“It was a big homer. It was fun,” Turner, the Phillies’ shortstop, told Fox after his eighth-inning grand slam put the Americans ahead for good in their quarterfinal game against Venezuela. “That’s why we’re playing. That’s why we’re here. Just back and forth all day. It was unbelievable.”
Altuve fractured his right thumb in the same game against Team USA, after getting plunked by a Daniel Bard fastball, and the Astros second baseman is out indefinitely. While Altuve’s injury came during game action, Diaz suffered a freak injury celebrating Team Puerto Rico’s victory over the Dominican Republic. Diaz, the Mets’ $102 million closer, sustained a torn patellar tendon and is expected to miss the entire 2023 MLB season.
Despite the social media rebuke following Diaz’s and Altuve’s injuries, the WBC games continue to draw capacity crowds and some of the sport’s biggest stars — Angels teammates Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani represent Team USA and Team Japan, respectively.
DuPuy says that when the original WBC plans were discussed, one of the biggest hurdles to clear was securing the Players Association’s approval on several fronts, given the tournament would take place right in the middle of spring training.
“The one concern was when to have it (staged), and what impact it would have on major league rosters and spring training,” says DuPuy. “Owners and players and the union were legitimately concerned about the risk of injury. But I think everyone rallied around the idea that this was a positive for the international exposure and growth of the sport. The players and union embraced the concept. (Former MLBPA executive) Gene Orza played a very active role throughout.”
Once the players were onboard, DuPuy says the WBC organizers had the good fortune of stars like Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, and Ichiro Suzuki signing up to play for their countries.
“We had had a lot of success with all-star tours in Japan,” says DuPuy. “We were trying to make some inroads into China. We considered Asia to be a mature baseball market, and obviously Latin America. We also thought having the ability to have a Cuban team participate would be a real draw.”
DuPuy remembers traveling to Tokyo for the Pool A play — which featured China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — and writing blog entries for MLB.com, which was still in its infancy. “The Tokyo Dome was packed,” says DuPuy. “The Korea/Japan game was a monster.”
Japan won both the 2006 and 2009 WBC tournaments, while the Dominican Republic was crowned WBC champs in 2013 and Team USA won it all in 2017.
“No question, the players deserve enormous credit for being willing to step out of their routine and do something different, modify training,” says DuPuy. “I think the players have embraced it, and I think they are enthusiastic, treat the WBC seriously within the constraints of the rules and structure.
“Our fans have the luxury of seeing the best players in the world 162 games a year among the 30 teams,” adds DuPuy. “Initially, for Japanese fans, Korean fans, the European fans, Latin American fans, they got to see these players go against the best players in world in this type of format, and that was very exciting. I think the WBC has done that, and that the interest only continues to grow.”