World Baseball Classic

2017 World Baseball Classic: 16 countries brought their best national baseball team to compete for the large silver trophy in an international contest that includes current MLB players. They don’t reach this level without the fire of competition. But, playing for your country undoubtedly raises the stakes on this world stage. It’s priceless. The round robin tournament is played in 4-pools of 4-teams.

First rounds were held in facilities listed below.

Pool A: Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul (South Korea)

  • Israel
  • Netherlands
  • South Korea
  • Chinese Taipei

Pool B: Tokyo Dome in Tokyo (Japan)

  • Japan
  • Cuba
  • Australia
  • China

Pool C: Marlins Park Miami. Florida (USA)

  • Dominican Republic
  • United States
  • Colombia
  • Canada

Pool D: Estadio Charro in Zapopan, Jalisco (Mexico)

  • Puerto Rico
  • Venezuela
  • Italy
  • Mexico

Second round hosted advancing countries in 2-pools of 4-teams.

Pool E Tokyo Dome in Tokyo (Japan)

  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • Israel
  • Cuba

Pool F Petco Park in San Diego, California (USA)

  • Puerto Rico
  • United States
  • Dominican Republic
  • Venezuela

And, the semi-final and final games were held at,

Championship Round Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, California (USA)

  • Netherlands
  • Puerto Rico
  • United States
  • Japan

This was the fourth iteration of the WBC. Initially, it was to be held every 3-years when it first opened in 2006. The second one was held in 2009 but an adjustment is made to avoid from having the events on the same year as the Olympics. That was followed by 2013 and 2017. By this time, Japan wins in 2006 and 2009. Those trophies are found in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Dominican Republic came into 2017 as the undefeated reigning Champions of 2013.

Modeled after the FIFA World Cup, the event was initially sanctioned by International Baseball Federation as a response to International Olympic Committee’s decision to remove baseball from the summer games. World Baseball Classic also helped to achieve the MLB goal of expanding global interest in the sport. The atmosphere brings the best of a play-off game and a national festival in one. Regardless of who’s playing where, its undeniable that the world is watching. Here are two visits from First Round Pool C and Second Round Pool F.

Team Colombia @ Team USA

MARLINS PARK (Miami, Florida). First Round in Pool C Team Colombia Plays in the World Baseball Classic for the first time and the fans make them feel at home. Colombia advanced from a qualification pool with Panama, Spain, & France in March of 2016. Team Israel also debuted in 2017, playing their first round in South Korea. Colombian native Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox) started for Team Columbia and had a no-hitter against Team USA for 5 innings, until Brandon Crawford (San Francisco Giants) snapped it and started a 2-run rally to tie it up in the bottom of the sixth inning. Adam Jones (Baltimore Orioles) had an RBI double in that rally and the walk off hit in the 10th inning. 

Team Dominican Republic @ Team Puerto Rico

PETCO PARK (San Diego, California). Second round in pool F opens with Team Puerto Rico at home versus Dominican Republic, the defending WBC 2013 Champions. Both teams came into the game undefeated, a rematch from the Final game 4 years ago. Fans migrated from around the world to cheer for their country. And, this game was no different. Dominican Republic started the 1st inning threatening to score with men on base and no outs. It ended with a double play that started with a putout in right field by Edwin Rosario (Minnesota Twins) and a great throw to Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals) to get the runner at home trying to score for the third out. Team Dominican Republic Manager Tony Pena was ejected late in the game for arguing balls and strikes. Needless to say, he did not go away easily. Both teams were grinding for runs the rest of the game. Yadier Molina hit a home run in the sixth to serve as an insurance run. He was also on the other end of another epic play in the 8th inning when he threw out Nelson Cruz trying to steal second base and in an apparent no-look tag by Javy Baez at second base. Puerto Rico held Dominican Republic for the win.

As it turned out, both home teams of my two visits (United States and Puerto Rico) met for the final championship game in Dodger Stadium. Puerto Rico entered the game with an undefeated record to no avail. MVP Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) was starting pitcher for Team USA and held the offense to one hit in six innings. Meanwhile, the Team USA line-up who were all-exclusively MLB players combined for 13 hits and 8 unanswered runs. This loss was especially tough for Team Puerto Rico as they also lost the championship game to Team Dominican Republic in 2013. The large silver trophy went to the country where this game was born. Team USA Manager Jim Leyland was asked what this trophy meant to him. “I’ve had the honor of managing for our country. The coached had the honor of coaching for our country. The players had the honor of playing for our country. But this is for the men and women that serve our country. Thank you very much,” said Jim Leyland.

In a “Non-COVID-19 World,” we would’ve already enjoyed a 2020 Summer Olympic Games that included baseball and softball back into the games for the first time since 2004. We would have also been in the midst of championship week once again with the 2021 World Baseball Classic. The good news is the Summer Olympic Games are back on track for Summer of 2021. Qualifier games are expected to be played in June. The bad news is that the World Baseball Classic has folded with no clear path to rescheduling it. Among other factors, its fate hinges on the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and players union and, once again, the event finds itself overlapping with the timeline for the summer games. But, the storied relationship between the powers that be does not end nor start there.

Osceola County Stadium

New York Yankees @ Houston Astros

2012 Spring Training. Houston Astros hosted the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida; a year where they would play their last season in the National League. After this, they went from the National League (NL) Central Division to American League (AL) Western Division. All the other teams in the AL West we’re building championship caliber teams at the time. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were still relevant after playing in the 2010 & 2011 World Series. Albert Pujols was starting the first of his 10-year $240,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Angels; the same time when Mike Trout would be the Rookie of the year and a strong candidate for the MVP every year after that. Oakland A’s were matched with Detroit Tigers in the 2012 AL Division Series and Seattle Mariners played in an AL Wild Card Game. In other words, the Houston Astros were moving to a division that was feverishly developing their organizations from the ground up for sustainable winning. But, Astros were also working on a 5-year rebuild that would put them in a position to win in that group. This was the same year that Houston Astros signed Carlos Correa as the overall first round draft pick. Chicago Cubs and more recently Chicago White Sox have done something similar; focusing on player development, down to the A-ball level. Players from the 2017 championship team, like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, were already with the organization. Long time Astro Carlos Lee was traded to the Miami Marlins later that year.

A game with the New York Yankees was good practice for that; facing a line-up that included players like Raul Ibanez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the lineup. There is always a huge following for the New York Yankees when they are in Kissimmee, Florida. It’s more of a barnstorming atmosphere than the typical methodical spring training game. Of the list of parks visited, Osceola County Stadium is my most attended. But this is true in all the Spring Training venues. There is always a short-list of teams who have the potential to sell out higher priced tickets in any spring training park that they arrive at; a dynamic reserved for a larger market team or a defending champion.

When the Houston Astros pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training the following year, it was a new year, a new division, in new uniforms, with new ownership in Jim Crane, and a new front office; eventually a new president in Reid Ryan, son of legendary Nolan Ryan. Jeff Luhnow was on hand to meet all invitees on their first day at the alternate fields next to Osceola County Stadium. The new general manager hired by the Houston Astros the previous December. The first few days of reporting are usually the best time to interact and get autographs. You’re up close and personal with the players, who rotate from station to station during their drills and exercises. Sometimes it’s just a rope that separates you from the action.

As I walked around, I passed a player and, as a gesture, I wished him good luck. “Thanks,” he said as he headed for the batting cages. Initially, I didn’t recognize him. After looking again, I asked if he used to be a pitcher. “Yes!” he said. He was a position player who reported early to do some work in the batting cages. But it was only natural that he be with pitchers and catchers. It was Rick Ankiel who debuted as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999. Issues with control ended his pitching. His toughest outing was game one of the 2000 NLDS, when Tony Larussa slipped him in under the media radar after many of his pitchers were injured that post season. After a series of setbacks, he came back in 2007 as a centerfielder and reinvented his career. He made the 2013 Houston Astros squad but was released a month later, then picked up by the New York Mets and finally made his last MLB appearance June 08, 2013. In one word; resilient.

The Houston Astros trained here until 2016. After that, they moved to a $148.6 million complex in West Palm Beach that they now share with the Washington Nationals. Sadly, this would eventually leave a void for baseball in Central Florida. Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advance-A Affiliate) called this home until they also moved to a new facility last year in Sarasota, Florida. But, since 1984, Osceola County Stadium has withstood the test of time. Its still a haven for USSSA tournaments, the building along the right field line houses their Hall of Fame and Museum.

Miller Park

2010 Regular Season at Miller Park and the Milwaukee Brewers are hosting the Minnesota Twins. There are other stadiums with retractable roofs. But this one is fan-shaped that starts at midpoint and extends out to the perimeter of the structure. Completed in 2001, its one of the largest construction projects in Wisconsin history, great place for a ball game. Casey McGehee and Rickey Weeks hit home runs for Milwaukee which means “Bernie Brewer” went down his slide beyond left field. Prince Fielder was still roaming first base before the career ending injury in 2016. This was my second visit and the Twins were in town both times. Milwaukee is about a 7-hour drive to from Minneapolis. The trip is not long at all for the Twins faithful who turned out for the game. Milwaukee baseball is one of the best kept secrets in the sport. It’s a long tradition that traces back to 1901 at the start of the American League (AL). That team would move to St’ Louis to become the St. Louis Browns. For the early 20th Century, Milwaukee Brewers were a Minor League Team. Milwaukee Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played a single season in 1944 and won the Championship.

Before Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers played in Milwaukee County Stadium Where the Milwaukee Braves also once played. That Braves era captured the rising stardom of future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, becoming the NL MVP and a part of the World Champions in 1957. The Milwaukee Brewers were originally the Seattle Pilots. In their only season of 1969, the Pilots finished last in the AL West with a record of 64-98, as expected with any inaugural expansion team. Bud Selig, who was the eventual Commissioner of Baseball, led a group that purchased the Pilots, then moved them to Milwaukee as Brewers just days before the start of the 1970 Season. Milwaukee Brewers were in the AL Division, in the same division with Chicago White Sox, until 1998. Now they are a thorn on the side of Chicago Cubs in recent years. Miller Park is a couple of hours from Chicago so Cub fans migrate here to support their team. In fact, its safe to say teams in the Midwest have a loyal fan base willing to take that road trip to a tail gate.

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor played on both the Brewers and Twins teams. He is remembered more for his 1993 MVP year with the World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. Yet, he left an indelible mark on the Milwaukee Brewers and the A.L. Championship run in 1982. Hall of Famers Robyn Yount and Rollie Fingers were also part of that historic 1982, better known in Milwaukee as “Harvey’s Wall Bangers” (named after their Manager Harvey Keunn), a colorful cast of characters that went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1982 World Series. Robin “The Kid” Yount who was called up out of high school played his entire career in Milwaukee (1974-1993), still the last 18-year-old to hit a home run in MLB history. “Fingers” who defined the value of a relief pitcher was at the tail end of his career. He was able to get 29 saves for the “Brew Crew” before the injuries. Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Bob Uecker have their numbers retired here. There’s a punchline in there somewhere. Only Bob Uecker can deliver on that. He’s been in baseball for 50 years and Milwaukee would not be the same without him.

Minnesota Twins @ Milwaukee Brewers