Compared to many Summer Olympic sports that date back to 1896 or Winter Olympic sports that date back to 1924, baseball has comparatively little experience as a top-notch international sport.
For decades it was basically assumed that American baseball was the best and not even the best players from other countries (with few exceptions) could cut it in the major leagues. Baseball was enormously popular in a few hotspots in Latin America such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, but at best it ranked second in popularity to soccer in other Latino nations.
Excepting that odds and ends player from Dolph Luque to Minnie Minoso to Chico Carrasquel, it was the late 1950s before the finest Hispanic players began infiltrating the majors in any kind of numbers. Since then the growth has been steady. And over the last 15 years or so the game has grown exponentially worldwide and major leaguers hail from any number of countries, especially Japan, but also Canada, Taiwan, Australia, you name it.
Taking note, the International Olympic Committee adopted baseball–and softball for women–as medal sports. However, because the Summer Olympics always took place during the summer the United States was never represented with the best players in the country. The American team in no way resembled the American Dream Team in basketball, with the roster dense with minor leaguers. Then the IOC dropped baseball altogether.
Starting in 2006, taking the Olympics’ place as the most prestigious international forum that Major League players could compete in is the World Baseball Classic. Except for the Olympics, Americans have been more conditioned to cheer their loudest for their hometown teams in comfortable professional settings such as the pennant race and World Series. It as obvious that the United States did not send its best possible team to the first two classics, though it may still be a surprise to some fans that the country has yet to win its first medal of any kind, not even a bronze, after two Classics.
There is more awareness and casual interest in the World Baseball Classic now than before, but few fans rearrange their calendar around it. This year’s 16-team tournament begins with games March 2.
For the third Classic, the United States is relying on players volunteering to leave their Major League teams during spring training to play for the good, old US of A under manager Joe Torre. Although the final roster has not been determined, among the Americans signed up are Joe Mauer, Brandon Phillips, David Wright, Ryan Braun, R.A. Dickey, Mark Teixeira, Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones, Jimmy Rollins, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland.
If this was 20 years ago nobody in the U.S. would have heard of any of the players representing other countries, but now just about every entered nation has someone of Major League prominence on the roster.
The Dominican will choose its final roster from a list of players that includes Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, and Melky Cabrera. Yep, the same Melky Cabrera who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended for 50 games in 2012. How does he rate being included?
At last check Ichiro Suzuki was not going to play for Japan for a third time. Yet Japan always has a formidable team The Japanese squad won the gold medal both times, in 2006 and 2009, that the World Baseball Classic was previously held. But just maybe its the United States’ turn.