National pride at stake as World Baseball Classic kicks off

Fans waved flags, sounded horns and painted national colors on their faces.

Players said they had never been in a game as emotionally charged as the night Team USA lost to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park — even some who have experienced the World Series.

With Miami playing host to first-round games in the fourth WBC Thursday through Monday, baseball — or beisbol — with a raucous international flair will again be served in Little Havana. A sellout is already assured Saturday when the United States will attempt to avenge its 2013 defeat to the defending champion Dominicans.

Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton, who played for the U.S. in the three second-round games in Miami last time, recalls “just how alive Marlins Park was and how alive the fans were and just everyone wanting us to win.”

The festival atmosphere tied to national pride is the allure of the WBC, similar to World Cup soccer, though without the deep-rooted history.

Teams from 16 nations began pool play Monday at four widely scattered venues — Japan (Tokyo), South Korea (Seoul) and Mexico (Guadalajara) are the others.

Canada and Colombia are the other nations competing in Pool C in Miami along with the U.S. and Dominican Republic, with the top two teams advancing. The second round will be in San Diego and Tokyo, with the semifinals and finals at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, March 20-22.

“They don’t have baseball in the Olympics, so I guess this is the closest thing you can get,” said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, who will play in the WBC for the first time. “I know there’s amateur Team USAs but I feel like this is the Team USA; and I’m excited to be a part of it and have the opportunity to wear a USA jersey and play with some of the best players in baseball and be their teammates for a few weeks.”

Although baseball will return to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, ending a 12-year absence, it is unlikely that major league players will participate due to the Games taking place in the middle of their regular season. That leaves the WBC as the closest approximation of a world championship of baseball that includes many of the best players.

Most teams in the WBC are loaded with major league players, including 63 former All-Stars (up from 45 in 2013).

The paradox of the WBC is that they won’t necessarily be performing at All-Star levels due to the timing of the tournament, during spring training when most players are shaking off the rust from the offseason.

“I’ve been intrigued with the passion with which some of the countries go about this,” said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, who will be on the MLB Network broadcast team for all of the rounds in the United States. “Because it is in spring training, it’s not like you’re asking guys to be absolutely at their best. There is something unique about wearing the jersey of your country. But the challenge is for the player to get ready for the season but compete at a higher level than you normally would in spring training.”

That is particularly problematic for pitchers who are early in the process of rebuilding arm strength, and special rules recognize that. For instance, during the first round pitchers are limited to 65 pitches in a game, and anyone throwing at least 50 pitches must rest at least four days.

Managers face the difficult task of looking out for the interests of high-priced players and the teams that employ them while also striving for national glory and to meet expectations of their country’s fans.

The U.S. hasn’t fared well in that regard, never finishing better than fourth in a WBC while compiling a 10-10 overall record.

Contrast that to the Dominican team that won all eight of its games in a dominating run to the title in 2013.

“It was a great feeling to win for your country,” said Marlins pitcher Edinson Volquez, who was part of that team, recalling how the 3-0 victory over Puerto Rico in the final game in San Francisco set off a wild celebration in his homeland.

“More than 10,000 people were watching the game [on TV] in one spot. As soon as we made the last out against Puerto Rico, I remember they put [the scene] on the board in the stadium in San Fran. Everybody was jumping around. It was crazy. It was really fun to watch that.”

WBC fervor in this country has been tepid, at best. That could change if the U.S. team can make a run to the championship round.

The excitement from four years ago did resonate with some players. Stanton announced his return in a tweet accompanied by a photo of himself in his Team USA jersey that read: “Boom, I’m coming back to Team USA. World Baseball Classic let’s go!!!!”

“For me I love watching the Olympics and how people only get one shot every four years,” Stanton said. “We have our team [Marlins] so we get our shot every year, but this is our version of the Olympics. It means a lot.”

A Los Angeles native, Stanton has his sights on getting to the final in his hometown. The quest begins in his big league home in Miami, where the six games in 2013 drew 154,624 fans. That was a 35 percent increase over the 2009 second round at then-Sun Life Stadium.

The upcoming U.S.-Dominican sellout of the 37,000-seat ballpark already eclipses the top crowd of 34,366 when the teams met last time.

The WBC was conceived to help grow baseball around the world. It has had significant impact in that regard in places like Colombia, Italy and the Netherlands.

Nonetheless, there has been uncertainty about whether the event will be continued after this year, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said emphatically this week that it is on solid ground. He pointed out that the WBC will be televised in 182 countries and is expected to generate more than $100 million in revenue.

The problem of finding an ideal time to schedule it has made the WBC somewhat of an albatross. Some major league teams aren’t keen about having key players risk injury, and some stars shy away from playing. Notable among the missing from Team USA are some of the biggest names, including Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

But over the next couple of weeks the championship of baseball will be at stake in the eyes of many around the world. A strong showing by the U.S. team could open some eyes here as well.

“I feel like there is a lot of interest in it this year. There’s a lot of good teams, good players on every team. So we’ve got to go there and play well,” Yelich said. “We’ve got a great group of guys going. I’m excited to play with them, and hopefully we can do well.”