Shohei Ohtani lived out a fairytale as the World Baseball Classic came of age
Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic final between the US and Japan may have been played in Miami but, judging by the atmosphere throughout the stadium, Japan’s status as the home team was more than just an official designation. Although the crowd at LoanDepot Park seemed evenly split between Japanese and American factions, with frequent music and (a sincerely exhausting amount of) jumping up and down, it was the Japanese fans’ energy which electrified the stands for much of the game.
Most tellingly, during the player introductions before the game, it was Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani, rather than any of the American players, who received (by far) the loudest cheer. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising – Ohtani’s ability to draw a crowd is unquestionable at this point. For example, when asked what prompted them to attended Tuesday’s game despite not often attending baseball games back home, Shoko Mitomi and Kyoji Kimura of Okinawa were to the point: “We wanted to see Ohtani.”
Related: Ohtani closes in style as Japan edge USA for third World Baseball Classic title
Ohtani’s ability to excel at both pitching and hitting – skills which are usually mutually exclusive in baseball – makes him a once-in-a-generation player, although it may be more appropriate to start calling him a once-in-a-century player. Indeed, his statistics in Tuesday’s final haven’t been witnessed in top-flight American baseball since Babe Ruth achieved similar numbers more than one hundred years ago. Ohtani’s statistical triumphs, however, will not be what fans remember most about Tuesday’s game. That distinction goes to the game’s epic final out.
In the ninth inning, with Ohtani pitching and Japan just one out away from winning the championship, three-time MVP Mike Trout stepped up to the plate for Team USA. Adding to the drama of the moment – Ohtani and Trout are teammates on the Los Angeles Angels when they’re not representing their home countries. To put it simply, this is the one-on-one, pitcher-batter showdown that every baseball fan has wanted to see since the WBC’s rosters were first announced. Hurling fastballs at speeds of up to 101mph, Ohtani worked Trout to a full count before luring the US captain into swinging (and missing) at an 87mph sweeper for the final strike, and out, of the tournament. Trout misses, Japan wins. It was practically poetic (literally).
SHOHEI OHTANI STRIKES OUT MIKE TROUT TO WIN THE #WORLDBASEBALLCLASSIC! pic.twitter.com/F7vUtIiRR1
— MLB (@MLB) March 22, 2023
The moment was all the more meaningful because Japan’s victory seemed far from certain earlier in the evening. The US had jumped out to an early lead when shortstop Trea Turner belted a home run to left field in the top of the second inning. It was Turner’s fifth homer of the tournament (tying Seung Yuop Lee’s record for a single WBC) and, in a testament to his heroics throughout the competition, the shortstop would be the subject of “M-V-P” chants after reaching base again in the eighth inning. Turner wasn’t the only American playing well – in fact, the US racked up nearly twice as many base hits throughout the game as Japan. These frequent but poorly timed spurts of offense, however, weren’t cohesive enough to overcome the steady efficacy of Japan’s pitching attack.
US fans may be disappointed by their team’s loss, but baseball fans around the world (Americans included) should be thrilled with what’s happened at the WBC over the last couple of weeks. Not only has this iteration of the tournament attracted more star players than previous editions but, by almost every metric, the 2023 WBC has been an unprecedented hit with fans. More than one million people attended games in-person this year, nearly twice the previous record (510,000 attendees) set in 2017. Other figures bear out the same trend. Merchandise sales have also broken previous tournaments’ records. Millions of American television viewers tuned in to watch group stage matches against relative baseball minnows and, internationally, the television ratings have been even more impressive.
For example, 62m Japanese viewers watched Japan play South Korea on television earlier in the tournament – that’s a full 49% of the country’s population, as well as more people than have ever watched a single MLB game. Moreover, although the television ratings for Tuesday’s final won’t be known for a couple of days, there’s a non-dismissible chance that its viewership figures will be even higher.
There are also less quantitative, more ethereal developments that fans have noticed. Lisa and Johnny Sansom of Fort Worth, Texas, are enthusiastic supporters of their local major league team, the Texas Rangers. They often even travel to Arizona to watch the Rangers in spring training. Nevertheless, they admit that there’s something different about WBC games. “We just fell in love with it,” says Lisa. “The crowds, the enthusiasm, the players, the atmosphere –we committed, we came to Sunday, Monday and Tuesday’s [games].”
The in-game atmosphere was by all account compelling at all of the tournament’s sites, but Miami’s status as one Latin America’s unofficial “capitals” allowed the games here to truly show off baseball’s global fanbase. Although USA and Japan jerseys predominated in the stands at the final, a sizable percentage of attendees were draped in hats, jerseys, flags and other paraphernalia from Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the many other countries which participated in the WBC. When the US scored, however, the vast majority of fans in non-US/Japan jerseys leapt out of their seats to celebrate, reflecting the cosmopolitan and outward-facing version of American identity which Miami has long embodied.
Even with all of its promising advances, however, the 2023 WBC wasn’t without controversy. For example, players’ domestic clubs continued to worry about the increased injury risks players face when playing in such competitive games so soon after the off-season. Their concerns have merit. Puerto Rico’s Edwin Díaz and Venezuela’s José Altuve, all-stars for the New York Mets and Houston Astros, respectively, will both miss serval months of major league play owing to injuries they sustained at this year’s WBC.
Additionally, despite its global pretensions, the presence of American citizens on multiple other countries’ teams (perhaps unsurprising for a sport known as “America’s pastime”) can lend an air of faux-internationalism to proceedings. Nearly every country had at least one American-born player on its roster (including Japan), and the Israeli and Italian teams both consisted almost exclusively of US-raised players. The United Kingdom tied with the Bahamas just to be the second most common country of birth for players on Great Britain’s roster – the US supplied more players to Team GB than the UK and the Bahamas combined.
These various complaints, however, are universal in sport and do little to diminish from the WBC’s achievements. Pre-season injuries are not unique to the WBC – spring training ligament tears and muscle strains have caused many talented baseball players to miss playing time. And leveraging one’s multiple nationalities to identify the best international sporting opportunity is not specific to baseball –among other examples, New Zealand and South African accents have been heard on England’s national rugby and cricket teams for years. Indeed, it is difficult to isolate a critique of this year’s WBC tournament which is not also applicable to international sport more generally.
Which is all to corroborate the success of the 2023 WBC overall. The US may have lost the championship, but the WBC was a win for America’s pastime.