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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Maddie Lee

‘Another level’: Cubs players returning from WBC describe unforgettable experience

Cubs right-hander Marcus Stroman, playing for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, hugs Francisco Lindor after he scored during the fifth inning of the World Baseball Classic Pool D game against the Dominican Republic at loanDepot park on March 15, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Getty)

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki noticed when camera shots into Team Japan’s dugout showed his jersey hanging over the bench. He watched from afar as they brought it onto the field in their World Baseball Classic championship celebration. 

Suzuki was working back from the strained left oblique that has sidelined him since spring training games began and forced him to withdraw from the WBC, and he said the gesture meant a lot.

“Right after injury, it was hard to grasp the reality that you won’t be able to be out there with everyone,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “But seeing everyone grind out there,  …  they’re one of the motivators to just keep on going and keep giving my head up throughout the whole [rehabilitation] process.”

The WBC – which ended in a showdown Tuesday between Angels teammates Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, two of the best baseball players of all time – meant a lot of different things to a lot of people. It set attendance records, drawing over one million fans in the first round, almost doubling the previous record, with final attendance numbers surpassing 1.3 million.

Television ratings reflected a jump in interest across the globe. The quarterfinal game between Japan and Italy was the most-watched game in tournament history, rated a 48.7 in Japan. In Puerto Rico, their national team’s game against Team Dominican Republic pulled in, on average, a 62% share of people watching TV at the time. 

“There needs to be a way to put our personalities and players on display much better,” said Cubs right-hander Marcus Stroman, who pitched for Puerto Rico, “and to be able to grow the game so that the youth everywhere in the world is watching, keeping up, wanting to be Javy Baez, [Francisco] Lindor, Ohtani, [Randy] Arozarena. You’re now seeing, just in the World Baseball Classic, how much viewership we can truly have as a sport. So there’s a lot of work to be done in MLB as far as growing the game.”

That game between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic also ended with closer Edwin Díaz tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee during Team Puerto Rico’s celebration, reigniting injury-concern arguments. But immediately, MLB players in the tournament came to the WBC’s defense. 

Stroman added his voice to the chorus when he returned to Cubs camp this week.

“That was a super freak accident, obviously,” Stroman said Tuesday. “That can happen on any day here [in spring training]. So, I truly don’t believe in that as being a reason why you should shut a tournament down – because a freak accident happened. I think that’s crazy.” 

“I love Edwin. Super emotional moment. Obviously I’m praying [for him and] his family and wishing a super speedy recovery for him. He’s the best closer, arguably, in baseball. And yeah, that was a really tough time for the entire team.”

Still, Stroman wasn’t unswayed from his support of the WBC, a tournament he’s played in twice. He said he wished it was held every year. 

“I’ll play in every World Baseball Classic there is until I can’t walk anymore,” he said. 

There was a consensus among Cubs players returning from the WBC that the atmosphere was all but unparalleled. Stroman said he would “put it right up there” with the José Bautista bat flip game in Game 5 of the 2015 AL Division Series.   

“Maybe even more,” he said, “because of the instruments and the chants and the vibe of the stadium.”  

Said Team Puerto Rico outfielder Nelson Velázquez: “I can’t describe it. It’s something else. It’s something I have never lived before. So, for me, it was another level.” 

Left-hander Roenis Elías experienced a “complicated” dynamic with Cuban fans in Miami, half of whom he said were rooting them on and half of whom were protesting. He was only eligible to play for Team Cuba because of a change in policy that allowed MLB players who had defected from Cuba to play  for their home country in the WBC for the first time. 

After playing in Taiwan and Miami – as Team Cuba advanced from pool play, through the quarterfinals, to the semis – Elías said he could only compare the atmosphere to the 2019 World Series, when he was with the Nationals.

Even as a fan, Suzuki was impressed.

“The whole tournament in general was amazing – not just Team Japan, but all the teams that participated,” Suzuki said. “They had some really great games out there.”

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