‘It means everything’: How the 2023 WBC won over the players — and the world

‘It means everything’: How the 2023 WBC won over the players — and the world

MIAMI — In 2021, Randy Arozarena put on a green Mexico jersey, logged into his Instagram account and delivered a video message he hoped would be heard by the country’s president. He wanted to be made a citizen and expedite the process as quickly as possible so he could represent Mexico in a World Baseball Classic that wouldn’t take place for another two years. He asked his fans for help.

Said Arozarena: “It’s the only thing I want.”

Arozarena was born and raised in Cuba, but he fled the island in 2015, settled in Merida, had a daughter, honed his skills as a baseball player and fell in love with the culture. Over this past week and a half, while representing a Mexican team that advanced further into this tournament than anyone imagined, Arozarena navigated the WBC with an intensity and a swagger that inspired. He donned lavish sombreros, made bold proclamations, delivered timely hits, turned in spectacular defensive plays and even signed autographs during pitching changes.

His spirited play, for a country he chose, turned him into a God-like figure in Mexico, where fans on social media superimposed his face onto Mexican currency and iconic Mexican statues.

His zeal embodied the vibe of an entire tournament.

The fifth installment of the World Baseball Classic, which culminated in an epic showdown between Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, exceeded every expectation it carried. The atmosphere was electric, the games were intense, the drama was riveting. And in the end, despite consternation from pundits about injuries and paranoia from executives about usage, one aspect of it was undeniable: The players cared. A lot.

“It’s different,” Trout said moments after Japan’s 3-2 championship-clinching victory over Team USA on Tuesday night. “I can’t really express what’s different about it — you can just feel it in your veins.”

Ohtani is probably the biggest baseball celebrity in the world, a unanimous MVP who has done things that are unmatched in his sport’s history. But he called his game-ending strikeout of Trout — on a full-count slider that followed four consecutive 100-plus-mile-an-hour fastballs — “the best moment in my life.”

Throughout the tournament, players shared similar sentiments in the aftermath of their games.

“If you’re not here, you don’t get the desire and hunger and passion that we have for the game and for this tournament,” Puerto Rico catcher Christian Vazquez said in Spanish. “Wearing your homeland’s colors on the playing field is unexplainable. And this is an even bigger responsibility for all of us because it’s not representing a team, but an entire island. Our home country. And you give it all for your family and for all the people that got you here today. I was a World Series champion with the Red Sox, and this experience just has no comparisons. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

For players like Ohtani and Vazquez, brought up in baseball-obsessed regions that treat international events with considerable gravitas, passion for a tournament like this is inherent. For players like Lars Nootbaar and Alex Verdugo, representing the nations of their parents, it’s developed.

Verdugo was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, but his father was born in Hermosillo, Mexico. The outfield glove he uses regularly with the Boston Red Sox is red, white and green as a tribute to the Mexican flag.

“It means everything,” Verdugo said of playing in the WBC. “I love this.”

Nootbaar, from California, treated his participation in the World Baseball Classic as an opportunity to learn the Japanese culture of his mother, going so far as to try to memorize the words to the country’s national anthem. Navigating pool play in Tokyo qualified as a life-changing experience.

“For me to be able to wear ‘Japan,’ honor my mom — she sacrificed everything for me,” Nootbaar said. “I kind of understand some of her tendencies now after being there for a couple weeks.”

In previous iterations, excitement around the World Baseball Classic has been hard to come by in the U.S., which places far more importance on its domestic regular season. And yet Team USA’s stars displayed palpable intensity throughout this year’s event, spilling out of their dugout during big moments, making aggressive turns after routine singles, roaring toward the crowd after escaping tough jams. The competition brought it out of them.

“It’s like you either perform or you get exposed,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “I just think there is such a respect of the tournament from the guys in that room — a want to succeed, a want to represent your country.”

The last five days of this year’s tournament featured four exhilarating, back-and-forth games. In a quarterfinal matchup on Friday, Mexico overcame a four-run deficit to stun Puerto Rico. Trea Turner then pushed the U.S. to victory over Venezuela with an eighth-inning grand slam on Saturday; Munetaka Murakami hit a walk-off double off the center-field fence to send Japan into the championship on Monday; and Ohtani closed out a one-run win by striking out Trout on Tuesday, amazingly delivering the matchup between Los Angeles Angels teammates that so many dreamed about months earlier.

More than 1.3 million people attended the 47 games that encompassed this year’s World Baseball Classic. Eleven of the 15 games that took place at LoanDepot Park, which hosted the knockout rounds, sold out. By the end of the first round, the 2023 WBC had already sold more merchandise than any of the previous four installments. The two semifinal games averaged 2.4 million viewers on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes, a 96% increase from the 2017 semifinals, according to data provided by Major League Baseball.

When Japan defeated Korea in Tokyo on March 10, 62 million people watched. When Mexico upset the U.S. on March 12, 47,534 people crammed into Chase Field in Phoenix. And when Puerto Rico got past the Dominican Republic on March 15, 62% of Puerto Rican households were tuned in.

The tournament faced its most pointed criticism later that night, when Edwin Diaz, the star closer for the New York Mets, tore his patellar tendon during the on-field celebration, an injury that will probably prevent him from pitching this season. The merits of the tournament were called into question by fans and pundits alike. But its participants pushed back against the criticism full-throatedly — none more so than Francisco Lindor, Diaz’s teammate both with Puerto Rico and the Mets.

“I understand how Mets fans are hurting,” Lindor said in Spanish. “But while for so many people the regular season is what counts, playing in the WBC means just as much to all of us. It is the dream of every Puerto Rican ballplayer to wear Puerto Rico’s colors and to represent our country. And not only Puerto Ricans, but every player in the WBC considers being here the ultimate honor. Of course, we don’t want injuries to happen, but it is part of the game. And they are things that can happen just anywhere.”

Another significant injury occurred on Saturday night, when Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve took a fastball from a noticeably erratic Daniel Bard in Venezuela’s quarterfinal game against the U.S. and suffered a fractured thumb. More outside criticism followed, albeit less so given the exciting games that led up to it. Privately, players and coaches pointed to other recent injuries — Gavin Lux tearing his ACL running the bases, Joe Musgrove dropping a weight on his big toe in the gym, Carson Kelly fracturing a forearm on a hit by pitch — to illuminate the inconsistency.

“People get hurt in spring training games every day right now,” Team USA starting pitcher Lance Lynn said, “and no one says we shouldn’t have spring training.”

Hours after the tournament had concluded, players on both sides remained on the field. The Japanese celebrated as a team, the Americans watched with their families. Team USA third baseman Nolan Arenado, who had just completed his second stint in the World Baseball Classic, stood about 10 feet from Ohtani, who wore a medal and took part in an endless array of selfies.

“Players need to do this,” Arenado said. “We have a really good team, but we need more stars. We need more guys. Why not? I think it’s important to play in it. You’re throwing hard in spring training, you’re playing hard. You might as well do it here — on a big stage for your country.”

ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Marly Rivera contributed to this report.


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