Thrilling Classic leaves strong impression

Tournament a hit with fans, players as game grows globally

March 23rd, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- Late Wednesday, Dodger Stadium's pristine lawn looked like your local high school football field in those proud, sentimental moments after commencement. Families hugged and snapped photographs as friends parted without knowing for certain when they'd meet again.

Team USA had just earned its first World Baseball Classic title, with an 8-0 victory over previously unbeaten Puerto Rico. After the American players sprayed champagne in the clubhouse, a trace of melancholy hung in the jubilant air.

, who recorded the final three outs, described the ninth as the "saddest, happiest inning I've ever pitched." And if you take the time to understand why, then you'll appreciate the potential legacy of WBC 2017.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

The occasion for joy was obvious: Robertson had preserved the most significant international baseball triumph in his country's history, in an enthralling tournament that erased any doubt as to the Classic's long-term viability.

The element of sorrow was equally poignant: With every pitch, Robertson nudged Team USA closer to its inevitable breakup. Once fielded 's ground ball and threw across the diamond to , this charismatic, captivating team had no more games to play.

And that stung.

"I've had some players already tell me this is the greatest experience of their life," Team USA manager Jim Leyland said, after the final game of what's likely to be a Hall of Fame career. "We had the right players. We had players that wanted to be here, and that's the kind of players you want."

In other words, the Classic mattered to them. It took less than three weeks for Team USA to become ... well ... a team.

And so after four installments of the tournament, the Classic's cognizance has arrived at a crucial inflection point, at least domestically: Many U.S. players who weren't on the 28-man roster now wish they had received invitations -- or had responded differently when asked. Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark acknowledged the latter point during a joint news conference Wednesday with Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Previously, critics said the World Baseball Classic would achieve relevancy in the U.S. once Major Leaguers cared enough to feel disappointed if they weren't involved. That has happened. It is now cool to play for your country. With consecutive wins over Japan and Puerto Rico, Team USA transformed the tournament's stateside profile while opening up competitive and commercial possibilities.

Intrigued by an All-Star break or out-of-season friendly game (or series) between the U.S. and Japan? Or another showdown between the Americans and the Dominican Republic? Those concepts are more credible now than they were a month ago, as a way to perpetuate the involvement of Major Leaguers with the national team and sustain the international fan fervor that created electric ballpark environments from Miami to Tokyo.

If you watched the 2017 World Baseball Classic, there's a really good chance you enjoyed it. And more of you watched it than ever before, based on attendance figures and television ratings. "Momentum" was one word Manfred used Wednesday in describing what 2017 has meant in the Classic's evolution.

And by the way, a tightening in the competitive field is part of that growth: As emphatic as Team USA's victory was in the championship game, the Americans needed to score on a wild pitch to force extra innings against Colombia in their tournament opener. Wednesday's win will help Team USA's recruiting effort in four years -- but repeating as champion is another matter.

Speaking of which: Based on comments by Manfred and Clark, all signs point to a renewal of the Classic in 2021. Between now and then, we could see MLB games in Mexico and Europe, among other potential destinations. Baseball will return to the Olympics in Tokyo in '20, although MLB's stance on player participation remains unclear.

In that way, it's too early to gauge all that is possible as a result of a memorable 2017 Classic and the Americans who won it. But we know we're going to miss watching them, and they will miss playing with each other. At least they have golden reminders of their time together.