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The World Just Got a Baseball Classic

Team USA’s championship game victory over Puerto Rico capped a thrilling tournament that enamored players and fans alike and should ensure a bright future for the WBC

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After two-plus weeks of play that celebrated on-field passion and multicultural expression, the World Baseball Classic came to a fitting close on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, as a charismatic, smiling 25-year-old who has a Puerto Rican mother and plays his home games in Canada delivered the first tournament trophy for Team USA.

Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman left the WBC championship to a standing ovation from fans of both teams after allowing his first hit in the seventh inning of the U.S.’s eventual 8–0 win over Puerto Rico. When Stroman exited, the Americans already led 7–0, and the victory was no longer in doubt. But the celebration carried on for two innings and 90 minutes longer, culminating in a trophy presentation with the stands still full and the patriotic chants still reverberating through the crowd.

Let’s hope we can do it again in four years. Since the pre-tournament period, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been dogged with questions about the tournament’s longevity, as American stars declined invitations to join the team and concerns about low fan engagement persisted from previous iterations.

Between drama in the U.S.’s games and a collection of fantastic highlight plays, though, the 2017 edition seemed to resonate with fans more than previous tournaments had. “I like to use the analogy of the Ryder Cup,” Manfred told reporters Wednesday. “It took time for the Ryder Cup to become what the Ryder Cup is today, and it is going to take time with this tournament. But each and every time, it’s been better. There’s been more traction, more interest. I think we’re kind of at a watershed with 2017 with how good it’s been.”

He said those words even before Stroman pitched the best game of the tournament on his way to earning MVP honors. The 5-foot-8 right-hander struggled to the tune of a 4.37 ERA with the Blue Jays last year in his first full season back from a torn ACL, but he excelled in one specific area, leading all qualified starters in ground ball rate (60.1 percent of batted balls). With his sinker tumbling down the strike zone on Wednesday, the Puerto Rican lineup could scarcely lift the ball, let alone drive it toward the Dodger Stadium bleachers. Twelve of Stroman’s 18 outs came on grounders, including one double-play ball that erased his only walk from the base paths.

And on a day that began with Ian Kinsler’s controversial remarks about the emotional on-field demeanor of Puerto Rican and Dominican players — hours before the American second baseman opened the scoring with a two-run homer off Puerto Rican starter Seth Lugo — Stroman offered some flashes of emotion at night, after some opposing fans launched insults at his mother for her son choosing to play for the U.S. instead of her home country. He walked off the mound with a shoulder shimmy after striking out Kike Hernández to end the third inning, then gave a nonchalant, napkin-into-a-trash-can toss to first base after fielding a Francisco Lindor comebacker in the fourth.

None of Puerto Rico’s vaunted hitters — not young stars Lindor and Carlos Correa nor veterans Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina — could contend with Stroman’s diverse repertoire. The Puerto Rican team entered the game hitting .326/.399/.537 in the tournament, which is a reasonable imitation of José Altuve’s slash line last year, and the same lineup had roughed Stroman up for four first-inning runs in pool play last week.

“I was a little more effective with my location, my sinker,” Stroman said. “I was down more. Last time I was a little up. I was able to vary timings today. That lineup is unbelievable. One through nine, it’s an All-Star lineup.” Besides Stroman’s first outing against Puerto Rico, American starters finished the tournament allowing just one earned run. Who needs Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard when Stroman and Tanner Roark are mowing down opposing lineups?

While the U.S.’s brightest stars might have been missing from the tournament’s finale — Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have been busy hitting homers in spring training — vocal fans were not. More than 50,000 attendees watched the championship on a clear, cool night in Los Angeles, meeting every hit, out, and strike call with cheers. If the American fans outnumbered the Puerto Ricans, they didn’t do so by much: The two blocs serenaded each other with a dueling chant of “Puer-to Ri-co, U-S-A” throughout the night, the countries’ names blending together as the throng of indecipherably red-and-blue-clad fans formed a throng of indecipherable noise. Before the game, MLB Players Association head Tony Clark told reporters that until this year’s tournament, such a back-and-forth chant “hasn’t happened before” in the WBC; Wednesday night’s was the most prominent and longest-lasting of the fortnight, and besides Stroman’s brilliance, “Puer-to Ri-co, U-S-A” was the in-stadium highlight of the finale.

A section down the third-base line was particularly spirited, holding up Puerto Rico flags that rippled in the wind, bouncing in the aisles, and playing festive music even as its favored team fell behind. When American left fielder Christian Yelich lashed an RBI single in the fifth, the stars and stripes emerged in force, just rows away from the large, instrumental Puerto Rican contingent. The fans of the losing side remained standing and chanted even louder.

Between innings on the kiss cam, a man sporting Puerto Rico’s trademark blond hair dye proposed. The woman said yes, and he stood in triumph waving his country’s flag. Even an eighth-inning rendition of the wave made its way confidently around the stadium without being met with the typical exasperation. It was the kind of atmosphere that should serve as a panacea to the tournament’s potential endangerment.

“I do believe the clubs are excited about keeping this event going,” Manfred said before the game. “I think 2021 is probably a pretty good bet.” The U.S.’s tournament heroes echoed his enthusiasm after accepting their medals.

“For the most part up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States,” U.S. coach Jim Leyland said. “But in talking to our players, I know they’re going to spread the word.”

Based on the passion with which his players reflected on their WBC run, that sounds likely. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Yelich said. “The American crowd showed out this year, too.”

Yelich and shortstop Brandon Crawford said they hoped to return to the tournament the next time it’s held. Stroman was more confident and specific with his future plans.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “I’ll be back in four years to defend the title.”