Spring Training is a tease. Baseball addicts survive winter's frosty void on a thin diet of trade rumors, "classic rebroadcasts," and Wikipedia biographies of old-timey players with funny names. (I see you, Ugly Dickshot.) The day pitchers and catchers report, we think, will mean the end of torment, as the most powerful opioid in sports begins to drip again. Invariably, we soon remember that spring baseball is like drinking salt water—it amplifies your thirst, and doesn't taste right, besides.
Parched, bored and desperate for competitive baseball—where players clap when they win and pout when they lose, and where we aren't forced to watch back-up catchers run slo-mo sprints in the outfield during games—I turned to something I had previously been happy to ignore: the World Baseball Classic. Baseball's would-be World Cup, the Classic is an international tournament in a sport that has no true infrastructure for international play. It has only happened twice before, in 2006 and 2009, and both times I dismissed it as a meaningless contest, played by nobodies (or bored somebodies) and watched by no one. Who needs a World Baseball Classic when you've got a World Series?
Well, as it turns out, I do. The World Baseball Classic is flawed, goofy, slipshod, and everything the World Series is not. It's also pretty great.
On Monday morning, October baseball was a long way off. But thanks to the magic of DVR, I could watch a meaningful-ish game that was just eight hours old: a sort of Communist Championship between China and Cuba, played before a nearly empty stadium in southern Japan. The players were anonymous, the level of play was profoundly low, and MLB Network's broadcast was charmingly inept. The game had been stripped to its essence—geometric perfection on shabby artificial turf. It took me about fifteen seconds to fall in love.
It reminded me of the bad old days of international soccer, when the beautiful game was still hard to find in the United States. To watch Greece win the 2004 European Championships—their unheralded journeymen steamrolling superstars like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo—I had to pay $150 for a pay-per-view package. For three weeks, my schedule readjusted to Portuguese time, as I became obsessed with a sporting event on the other side of the planet. I wasn't the only person in the U.S. watching, of course, but there was a weird sense of doing something secret in watching live sports at odd hours. In the years since, as the Euros and World Cup have been picked up by ESPN and ABC, that secret has become public property; the world's most popular sport was never much of a secret, anyway.
Baseball is no underground phenomenon, either, but the early days of the World Baseball Classic have the feel of secret baseball. Never have I been so unafraid to trawl Twitter while watching a recorded game; there is no one to spoil it, because there is no one watching. It's possible that when the United States starts play Friday night, domestic interest might perk up a little. But the latecomers will have missed the best part.
They will not, admittedly, have missed the best baseball. China against Cuba was a perfect initial WBC experience, steeped as it was in a sleepy sort of sociopolitical significance—a genial replay of Cold War sports, when Western audiences were exposed to Iron Curtain athletes they had never seen before and might never see again.
This is not to say that Major League fans should be clamoring to see any of these guys brought up to the show. In the third inning, Cuban shortstop Barbaro Arruebarruena attempted a swinging bunt. (The Cuban team is flashy like that.) He should have been thrown out at first, but Chinese pitcher Xin Li threw the ball over the head of his first baseman, who went down hurt after getting stepped on by Arruebarruena as the speedy Cuban turned for second. The right fielder's throw to second was also high, but Arruebarruena was forced to stop before he tried for third. China stopped the game for five minutes, attempting to explain—without an interpreter's help—that if the Cuban player stepped on their first baseman, he couldn't also have tagged first base. The umpires told them to throw back to first to appeal the play. When poor Xin Li did so—successfully, this time—the umpires ruled Arruebarruena had touched first, and the Cuban promptly stole third. By the seventh inning, Cuba was ahead by 12, and the game was ended on the mercy rule.
When Cuba took on Japan, the result was quite different but no less enjoyable. It was a meaningless game, as both teams had already secured a place in the second round—it's nice to share a division with the Chinese—but the Cubans played with swagger and the Japanese with style. The stadium was packed, and the crowd was into it, belting out the in-unison chants for which Japanese baseball is famous. Up by six in the ninth inning, the Cuban manager—famed crackpot Victor Mesa, a crazy-eyed baseball lifer who wears batting gloves for no evident reason—played a series of increasingly incoherent hunches and decided to raid his bullpen. He yanked one pitcher after another, destabilizing his relief corps enough to let Japan back into the game. Were it not for a long fly out that fell just short of a being a three-run homer, Japan would have tied it, and the cheering sections might have been raptured directly into baseball heaven and spent the rest of the game shout-singing from on high.
As this drama unfolded, American baseball fans slept, waiting patiently for Opening Day. Some will tune in on Friday night, when Team USA takes on Mexico, and most will tune out soon after, re-dismissing the Classic as nothing but a seasonally inappropriate All-Star Game. But watch Team Japan play in Tokyo, or Team Puerto Rico in San Juan, and something much more appealing is on display: baseball played intensely if not always well, before passionate fans cheering in their own idioms, and with their own idiosyncrasies and accents.
The baseball will not be perfect—and it's March, so why should it be?—but it will be baseball, played more or less as it's meant to be played. Perhaps in a decade the World Baseball Classic will be as popular as the World Cup, and the whole nation will turn to it as an escape from Spring Training's drudgery. Improved international sides would certainly help. But for now, it still feels like a sweet secret—all these early morning games and strange fight songs and on-field growing pains, all this actual caring when we're not even into March's second week. Baseball, already, or something close enough to it.