In 1896, the first Olympic Games of the modern era began. While it was a success, it was hardly the grand festival of sports that we now know. Few elite runners of the era took part, the sailing and rowing competitions were straight-up canceled due to logistics and weather, only one non-European county (the United States) sent an actual team, and the swimming contest was held in open water because the Greeks couldn’t afford a natatorium.
In 1900 and 1904, the second and third Olympic Games were held in Paris and St. Louis, respectively. They were total disasters. Overshadowed in most ways by the World’s Fairs in those cities, they lasted months with little ceremony or sense. Some people participated and won events and didn’t learn that they were Olympians until decades later, so poorly organized were the second and third Olympics. Perhaps the ultimate farce of the early Olympiads was the 1904 marathon, an event so bizarre and heinous that nothing, not even a 21-minute comedic documentary, can do it justice. The Olympics were in such rough straits that a now-unofficial 1906 Olympics were held in Athens to try and restore some dignity to the affair.
Then, in 1908, the Olympics were held in London. It was the fifth edition of the Olympics (counting 1906), but finally, the Olympics began to become THE Olympics. The stands were packed, athletes from nearly every occupied continent attended, and it paved the way for future Olympics, such as Stockholm 1912, that further built the Olympics into what we know today.
It is likely too early to say that the 2023 World Baseball Classic (the fifth installment) was the one where the World Baseball Classic became THE World Baseball Classic, but as I begin writing this in the hours after Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout‘s epic face-off in the championship game (I finished it a little over a day after), it is safe to say that, even if it isn’t, it has paved the way for the one that will.
Consider, for example, the hard numbers. The television ratings were off-the-scale, even in the up-until-now apathetic USA. Over five million watched the finale in America, despite it being on FS1 instead of regular FOX. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that if it had been on regular FOX that it would have pulled in ratings normally reserved only the World Series, perhaps even more.
And yet, that is nothing compared to the ratings in other countries. In Japan, over 40% of televisions were on for most if not all of Samurai Japan’s games, a figure that in America is only reserved for Super Bowls and earth-shattering breaking news. In Puerto Rico, the figure for their win-and-advance game against the Dominican was 62%. Viewership was up 35% in Korea and an absurd 151% in Taiwan, despite the fact that neither of their teams ended up advancing. Even the Czech Republic, where baseball is a niche sport at best and their team was made up almost entirely of amateurs and semi-pros, had record viewership of up to 240,000 in their game against Japan. While that may not seem like a lot, consider that the population of the Czech Republic is only 10.5 million, so that is over 2% of the Czech population, which is impressive for baseball in a country where it is so little-followed.
Then there is attendance. It did great, drawing over a million fans. Eleven of the 15 games in Miami, the hub of the tournament this time, were sellouts. While there were certainly some games (usually involving teams with little connection to the local crowd) that were sparsely attended, there were far fewer than past tournaments.
Third, player participation. With a few notable exceptions, almost every position player who you would want in the tournament was either in the tournament or had a valid excuse (like an injury or being on a new team). The pitchers, of course, remained an issue, but even there aside from the USA it felt like there were more taking part than previous times.
But most of all, it had an unstoppable, intangible buzz around it, from which the other three things I’ve mentioned flowed. It felt like every day had some new amazing story: the electrician who struck out Ohtani, the Nicaraguan pitcher signed after striking out three Dominican stars, the five-way tie insanity of the Taiwan pool, and countless others, all culminating with the made-for-Hollywood showdown between Trout and Ohtani. Nothing could stop it, not even the horrible injury to Edwin Diaz (outside of certain people who I will not name). In fact, after the injuries to Diaz and Jose Altuve, players outright spoke about how much they cared about the tournament and how much they hope it continues. The love that the players have for the tournament is infectious. Already, Bob Nightengale reports that Aaron Judge has already privately told friends he intends to take part next time.
The World Baseball Classic will return in 2026. Where it sneaked up on many of the non-believers this season, it won’t then. No, for this was quite possibly the year where the World Baseball Classic had its 1908 moment. When it ceased to be just the World Baseball Classic in name, but became the World Baseball Classic that we know going forward.