The fifth edition of the World Baseball Classic was far and away its most successful iteration. And it left fans waiting for its return in 2026.
In the leadup to the tournament, there were concerns about the interruption to players’ spring training regimens and time away from their Major League Baseball clubs. But once play started, those worries seemed to melt away. The tournament took place in Taichung, Tokyo, Phoenix, and Miami, the latter of which hosted games in every round, and pulled in record ratings.
Originally conceived as a way to demonstrate and showcase just how international the American pastime had become, the WBC had slowed in popularity in recent years. Between its first iteration in 2006 and the previous version in 2017, momentum had ground down due to a lack of prestige and international rosters that were less than star-studded.
The 2023 version was quite the opposite. Sixty-seven all-stars participated across the 20 teams, and seven of those players have also won MVP awards. One of those MVPs was Paul Goldschmidt, who was a part of the USA roster in 2017. After winning the 2022 NL MVP award, Goldschmidt was one of the first high-profile names to throw his hat into the ring to join the 2023 squad.
“I think last time (in 2017) one of the main topics was that the best players didn’t play,” Goldschmidt said. “I’ve said before, this is one of the greatest baseball experiences I’ve ever had. … I was basically begging to get back on the team.”
It wasn’t just the players who were excited, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred weighed in after the tournament on The Rich Eisen Show, saying “It was fantastic from my perspective. Obviously, the matchup at the end, Japan vs. the U.S. (Shohei) Ohtani vs. (Mike) Trout. Unbelievable.”
Much of the focus has rightly been on the final moments of the WBC that Manfred alluded to, the fantasy matchup where Ohtani of Team Japan struck out Trout of Team USA on a full count in the ninth inning of a one-run game in Miami. The two Los Angeles Angels teammates — and arguably two best players in the sport — having a winner-take-all at-bat to close the tournament was yet another perfect moment in a tournament that had all gone according to plan, especially during the South Florida games at loanDepot Park.
Trout himself was not only part of one of the most iconic moments in baseball’s recent history, but he also had a large part in making this tournament so special. Named the U.S. captain, Trout went out of his way to recruit top players and convince them to sign up.
“A lot of people and a lot of players reached out. The first one I reached out to was Bryce (Harper),” Trout said. “I told him, I said, look, this is a chance we get to play together. And I think it would be a pretty cool moment.”
Though Harper, a former National League MVP and star of the Philadelphia Phillies, was injured and unable to play in this year’s event, Trout’s efforts started to gather steam with other players.
“I think, ever since that, it was just a lot of guys that reached out and said, ‘Hey I want to be a part of this.’ And I think everybody wants to be a part of this because it’s going to be something special,” he said about the WBC moving forward. “I think being able to represent Team USA, go out there and have the whole country behind you, it’s pretty cool.”
Outside of the marquee names and major moments, there were more subtle instances of this year’s WBC being proof of the international growth of the sport.
Lars Nootbar, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who was not a household name outside of St. Louis, represented Japan, the country of his mother’s birth and became a sensation. As soon as he arrived in Japan, he was embraced by his teammates and the country as a whole. His “pepper grinder” celebration was quickly being performed by Japanese school children, news anchors, and soccer players. Nootbar’s Instagram following shot up from just over 60k to more than one million during the span of the tournament, and a ramen shop in Tokyo started serving “Nootbar Noodles.”
Though he doesn’t speak the same language, he became fast friends with Ohtani, as a testament to the connections that can be formed by baseball.
The tournament’s inaugural game, a 4-2 victory for the Netherlands over Cuba in Taichung introduced the world to “Horn Guy,” a fan who proudly displayed a large Cuban flag and blew an air horn continuously and so loudly that it was audible on the broadcast. Annoyance gave way to awe as “Horn Guy” was revealed to be Pablo Avlia, a truck driver from Houston, Texas, who was born and raised in Cuba and had flown halfway around the world to watch his home country play.
Avila is a microcosm of the international reach and impact baseball is hoping to highlight with the World Baseball Classic, and this year’s version — especially in the raucous, rowdy games in Miami — showed that they are well on their way.
See you in 2026.