MIAMI — The World Baseball Classic championship game ended Tuesday night and an hour later, while Team Japan sprayed champagne and partied in the clubhouse, there was Team USA, still on the field at loanDepot Park.
Team USA may have not won gold, but they were basking in the glory of the tournament. Mike Trout was running around chasing his son. Trea Turner was lifting his son high into the air. Manager Mark DeRosa was posing for pictures with his family. No one wanted to leave.
If this was a World Series game, let alone any postseason game, the losing team members would be slumped in front of their lockers.
But this night, not even a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Japan could mute their euphoria of being together in a surreal environment, one they vow never to forget as long as they live.
“It was probably the funnest 10 days I’ve ever had,’’ Trout said. “It’s different. I mean, I can’t really express what’s different about it. You can just feel it in your veins. It’s a special, special feeling.’’
USA bench coach Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star who played in the inaugural 2006 WBC, looked around the field. He saw USA players hugging each other, vowing to keep in touch and lamenting the thought of having to return to the drudgery of spring training for another week.
“You have guys out here disappointed that we came in second, they’re devastated,’’ said Young, “but look around. You don’t see guys with their families on the field when they lose a postseason. This is really a great celebration of the sport. Every time they do this, it gets better and better and better, people get to see what a great sport baseball is.’’
No wonder New York Yankees star Aaron Judge has already privately told friends that he wants to play in the 2026 World Baseball Classic. Once Judge makes an announcement, you can be sure that others will follow, just as they did for Trout and Mookie Betts.
The key, USA officials say, is now getting pitchers to buy in. There’s the fear of injury considering the tournament is in mid-March, three weeks before opening day, with pitchers asked to compete as if it’s the seventh game of the World Series.
The only pitching injury that occurred in the tournament was a fluke, when New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee after beating the Dominican Republic. It left virtually every player openly sobbing in the clubhouse with the news that Diaz will miss the entire season.
It was unfortunate, but it could have happened on opening day or during any other Mets celebration. It’s hardly a reason to believe that the WBC is an injury waiting to happen for pitchers.
“Every day you show up at the yard,’’ said Mets All-Star first baseman Pete Alonso, “there’s a possibility of getting hurt. There’s hazards in the job. That’s the risk we run playing baseball. We’re athletes, and unfortunately injuries are part of the game.’’
Still, the injury concern was enough to keep the biggest pitching stars from coming, with an insurance policy stopping future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw’s attendance. There wasn’t a single All-Star among the first four pitchers who appeared in Tuesday night’s championship game.
“From a competitive perspective, I think the most important thing,’’ MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said, “is we’re going to need to continue to work, particularly with our clubs, about pitching.
“It’s great the guys that we have, but I’d like to see pitching staffs that are of the same quality as our position players.’’
There is no ideal time to play the WBC to ensure the best pitchers join the USA team. They are not going to shut down the sport in July to play a two-week tournament. They can’t play after the six-month season when players are fatigued and would rather be in Maui with their family.
Yet the WBC is open to ideas and is intrigued by Team Mexico manager Benji Gil’s suggestion of moving the WBC back just a week, giving more time for players and pitchers to be ready, although it would run right up against opening day.
“We have talked about timing until your head hurts,’’ Manfred said. “There's just no perfect time. We can’t really do it during the playoffs because so many players would be down. We have talked about something in the middle of the season.
“I think on balance, although it’s not perfect, this is probably the right place for it.’’
Still, despite the imperfections, the interference from major league clubs, the reluctance of star pitchers participating, the WBC was an absolute treasure.
The atmosphere, USA pitching coach Andy Pettitte said, exceeded any of the heated Yankee-Red Sox games he played during his 18-year career. Adam Wainwright, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis Cardinals said it was the greatest environment they ever experienced.
There were sensational games throughout the tournament, Japan’s dramatic comeback victory over Mexico, Mexico’s trouncing of USA, the riveting Venezuela-USA game, and, of course, the ultimate showdown with Shohei Ohtani facing Mike Trout with the championship on the line.
“It was beyond my expectations,’’ Manfred said.
Perhaps the tournament means more to the Japanese than any other country. They began preparing for the tournament a month ago. They had their greatest pitchers in their country dedicated to winning the title. Ohtani, a free agent after the season who’s expected to command a historic contract, was willing to sacrifice it all to bring the title back to Japan for the first time since 2009.
“I believe,’’ Ohtani said, “it was the best moment of my life.’’
The funny thing is that same sentiment was shared by virtually everyone in the tournament, from Randy Arozarena who won the hearts of all of Mexico, to Lars Nootbaar, the American-born Cardinals outfielder who became a cult hero in Japan, to Trout.
It was a tournament that drew more than 1.3 million fans, with 62 million people in Japan watching their team play South Korea in the first round, more than any televised World Series game in history.
“Without making any judgment on talent,’’ Nootbaar said, “baseball means the most in Japan. In the Tokyo Dome, you have 50,000 people chanting the fight song of every player in the lineup, knowing every single word.
“Baseball is completely embedded in the country.’’
Yet to believe that Japan cares about winning the WBC more than the USA team, Young insists, is fiction. Maybe the Japanese fans may be more invested in the tournament but as far the players, they wanted that gold medal just as much as Ohtani.
“Honestly,’’ Young said, “I think the USA gets a bit of an unfair rap in that regard. I feel like there’s a misperception that it doesn’t mean as much for us. I’ve never been able to figure out why.
“A lot of teams, they really lean into the emotion of the event, because that’s who they really are. But just because one of our players doesn’t hit the ceiling on a bat flip doesn’t mean he give a (expletive) less than the guy who does.
“And I love that they do. I hope it (the bat) gets stuck up there and they leave it there as a souvenir so everyone can see it. I love it. The joy of the game comes out, God bless you. But if you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean you care less.’’
The emotion for Team USA was real.
The players vow they will return in 2026 and that there may be a few prized pitchers coming along with them for the ride.
“You can see the passion, you can see the energy and you can see what it really means to guys to go out there and put on that uniform for their country,’’ said Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who played second base for the USA in the tournament. “This is huge. You're playing for the world.
“What’s bigger than that?’’
Trout, who played in the tournament for the first time, says unequivocally that he’ll be back.
He plans on bringing along a few more famous friends.
“Next time,’’ he says, “I want to make sure everybody buys in.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: When's the next WBC? USA stars want to 'make sure everybody buys in'