SAN FRANCISCO -- By now, you've probably seen or read a few different articles or tweets about the Decline and Fall of the United States Baseball Club, or Why The Exit of the United States Means Something, or Maybe Buster Posey Should Just Move to Russia or Whatever. Team USA will not be in the finals for the third straight World Baseball Classic, and there's something of a scramble to see if this means something.
For the best explanation of why it probably doesn't, Ben Badler of Baseball America has it covered. Small-sample gremlins are at work, of course. The U.S. had a fantastic roster, but they couldn't hit Nelson Figueroa. And at some point this season, the Astros will beat the team that will eventually win the AL pennant. Baseball!
But narratives gonna narrative, and the lack of the U.S. team is seen as a failure for the World Baseball Classic. TV ratings in the U.S. won't be as high. Attendance for the semifinals might be a little thinner -- there were just over 30,000 customers Sunday night. Someone who matters is probably ticked off.
Except, I'm not sure that's the case. I would guess that in an ideal situation for the WBC, the final four would look like this:
1. United States
Ratings and overall interest would be better in the States if they had made it to the semifinals, yes.
A third of the country's TVs were tuned to a baseball game featuring Brazil, so the more baseball games they can play in the tournament, the better. A U.S.-Japan final would probably be the best-case scenario from a worldwide-ratings perspective.
3. Heavyweight from Latin American country
The Venezuelan and Dominican rosters were absolutely stacked with talent, and I was secretly hoping for those two teams to meet in the finals. That could have been the start of a pretty sweet WBC rivalry.
4. European underdog
I couldn't tell you if the Kingdom of the Netherlands will see an uptick in little-league enrollment if the national team wins the WBC. But it would have to raise the profile of the sport there. Unlike the situation with Team Italy, where a player needs only to have played Mario 64 in order to qualify, 18 of the honkballers team are actually Dutch. There is a baseball culture in the Netherlands, and a WBC win would only help its development. (I guess Australia would fall into this category, too. They're like Europeans with pouches.)
So of the four ideal teams or categories, three made the finals. And the replacement for the U.S. in this dream bracket is Puerto Rico, a territory with a strong baseball legacy and tradition. And they're like America's second cousin, so it's as ideal of a replacement as possible. The WBC final four is filled with interesting stories from a world-baseball perspective.
When you start going through the different permutations, it's almost as if the WBC can't lose. U.S., Venezuela, Japan, and the Dominican in the final four? That would be a monstrous collection of talent and active major leaguers. But baseball-crazy countries like Korea and Puerto Rico will always go nuts for their teams when they make the semi-finals. Established-yet-developing baseball countries like the Netherlands and Australia would benefit from the exposure in their home countries. And if a team like Brazil, South Africa, or Spain somehow made it to the semifinals one of these years, it wouldn't just be a fascinating story. It could be a watershed moment for the sport in those countries.
Unless you're looking at the WBC from a bizarrely ethnocentric perspective, the U.S. getting knocked out is just one chapter in a larger, more interesting story. The bizarrely ethnocentric perspective is how you get those articles we were discussing up there in the first paragraph. The United States not making it to the semis is bad for ratings in the United States. But what would a U.S. championship mean in the States? Would there be a run on U.S. championship gear? Would there be boffo sales of WBC Blu-Rays around the country? Nope. The people who care about the WBC now would continue to care. The people who didn't care before the start of the WBC would say, "Neat! The United States won the WBC!" Then they would continue not caring about the WBC. Maybe in 2016, a few of the latter group would stick around, but that's about it.
And that so-called replacement for the U.S., the team that supposedly messed up the ideal final four, had a vibrant, boisterous presence in AT&T Park. While interest in baseball there has waned over the years, likely because of the decision to make Puerto Rican players eligible for the Rule 4 draft instead of amateur free agents, there are hints that Puerto Rican baseball is in the middle of a resurgence. What do you think a WBC title would do for those efforts? There's no way to know for sure, but I'd wager the lasting effects of a Puerto Rican championship on Tuesday night would mean a heckuva lot more than whatever lasting effects of a hypothetical American championship would be.
Although an American title would help the visibility of the WBC, and if the argument here is that the WBC is good for baseball, then a U.S. title would be a positive outcome, too.
They're all positive outcomes. The WBC can't lose when it comes to the teams that succeed -- there are just different degrees of success. Using the U.S. as the barometer of that success for the WBC is very, very American. But it's also plain weird.