LOS ANGELES (AP) — Even before the United States took the field to face Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic championship on Wednesday night, Rob Manfred was confident in declaring this sometimes troubled tournament to be a smashing success.
The Major League Baseball Commissioner's confidence seemed well-founded when the Americans claimed their first WBC title in grand style with an 8-0 victory at raucous Dodger Stadium.
The fourth edition of the WBC was the best-attended, the most-viewed worldwide and likely the most entertaining.
And this tournament's long-term health is undeniably improved by the fact that the home team won it all for the first time.
"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," Manfred said shortly before the first pitch. "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."
Manfred and players' union head Tony Clark appear to be in complete agreement on the success of the 2017 WBC, which attracted more than 1 million fans for the first time and expanded its television reach as a unique worldwide platform for the game. Even before the enthusiastic worldwide reception and the U.S. team's winning surge at home, the WBC was expected to top $100 million in revenue this year for the first time, according to organizers.
Although no deal is firmly in place, Manfred and Clark are confident there will be a fifth WBC, most likely in 2021 after baseball makes its Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020.
"I think when you have a tournament that gets the kind of traction that the 2017 edition did, it will make it easier to get players the next time around," Manfred said. "Not only for the U.S., but for all the countries."
The robust ratings for MLB Network's game broadcasts and the raucous crowds of costumed, singing fans in Los Angeles and Miami belied the WBC's biggest problem, one that still prevents a dwindling number of American fans and players from taking it seriously.
While the WBC sells out stadiums and sparks baseball curiosity from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, the event still must persuade U.S. players and fans that it's a world-class competition while the biggest American stars are skipping it. Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Kris Bryant, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale and Bryce Harper were among the American luminaries who stayed in their big-league camps.
The confetti-strewn celebration in Chavez Ravine should have a few superstars realizing they missed out on something great.
"I don't mean this to sound wrong, but for the most part, up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States," manager Jim Leyland said. "But in talking to our players, I know they're going to spread the word. I've had some players already tell me this is the greatest experience of their life.
"So hopefully we can get guys to play. But we had the right players. We had players that wanted to be here, and that's the kind of players you want."
The international appeal of the WBC still was a tough sell to MLB teams and players understandably preoccupied with their paying jobs . Yet dozens of lesser American big-leaguers filled out the rosters of other nations by virtue of their ancestry, and the current U.S. team is likable and entertaining, from its thrilling finishes to the bald eagle statue adopted as their cheesy mascot.
"Signing up for this, I didn't really know what to expect," said Christian Yelich, the Miami Marlins outfielder from nearby Thousand Oaks, California. "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."
This group of 18 All-Stars got the U.S. into the final for the first time this year. The U.S. then capitalized with a championship game rout, capping a streak of three straight dramatic victories in must-win contests — the last two against previously unbeaten Japan and Puerto Rico.
Clark believes many more players appreciated the WBC's unique appeal after watching this tournament. Shortly after the opening games, he began getting calls and texts from players who wished they had taken advantage of the chance.
"The opportunity to wear your country across your chest is something, particularly if you haven't experienced it before," Clark said.
While the U.S. works on the proper formula for success, other nations are generating enormous benefits from the WBC. The tournament is the biggest sports news story in Japan, the winner of the first two tournaments, and it took off in attention everywhere from South Korea to the Netherlands this time out.
Puerto Rico is the latest team to ride the WBC wave after its charismatic collection of dyed-blond stars reached the final in style. Thousands of fans crowded the downtown streets in San Juan to watch the game broadcast.
After years of flagging interest in a once-popular sport on the island, manager Edwin Rodriguez sees "huge changes" in Puerto Rico's baseball culture over the past eight years. He credits them partly to the nation's WBC success in 2013 as the runner-up to the Dominican Republic.
"There's more youngsters playing baseball," Rodriguez said. "(In the previous) 10, 15 years, those good athletes, they were either playing baseball or volleyball or basketball, and now soccer. Right now, because we have so many talented young players in the big leagues, those very good athletes, when they get to that age of 15-, 16-year-olds, they're more inclined to stay in baseball."
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