We May Have Just Witnessed the Birth of an Incredible WBC Rivalry

Even a friendly feud between Team USA and Team Japan, heightened by its transcontinental nature, would be a boon to the tournament's visibility

Team Japan celebrates after the final out of the World Baseball Classic Championship defeating Team USA 3-2 at loanDepot park on March 21, 2023 in Miami, Florida.
A friendly rivalry between the two biggest baseball powerhouses in the world would be special
Megan Briggs / Getty Images

Watching the decisive at-bat of the 2023 World Baseball Classic Final last night, you had to pinch yourself. Arguably the two best players on the planet, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, actual teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, going mano a mano to decide a world championship?

As I wrote yesterday — and I really shouldn’t be so redundant as a sportswriter, but here we are: It wasn’t supposed to be this good. Though the bases were empty in the 9th inning, Team USA was only down a run, 3-2. And while there were two outs, a guy like Trout was certainly capable of tying the game up with a single turn on an Ohtani pitch.

The tension balloon filled as the count matured all the way to 3-and-2. But Ohtani’d had enough at that point and decided to follow up a 102-mph fastball with an 87-mph slider to put Trout, whom he’d never faced before, to bed.

And with that incredible, gutsy sequence Ohtani also tucked in Team USA and the whole WBC Tournament. It was the end, but he may have started something.

After a swing and a miss at that jump-off-the-diving-board slider, Trout screamed something probably not permitted in a kindergarten class, his head issuing a single, almost-involuntary convulsion. It’s a moment Trout will probably remember for the rest of his life.

But for the baseball world to most benefit from his internal strife, he only has to remember it for another four years.

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Trout, Team USA’s captain, notably playing in his first World Baseball Classic this year, promised sometime prior to the final that he’d return to the tournament next time, likely in 2027 — barring, I suppose, another global pandemic like the one that delayed this iteration of the tournament. He’s 31 years of age and with any luck, he’ll still be in good form four years from now. We’ll be even luckier if the 28-year-old two-way superstar Ohtani is, too. Because maybe we’ll get this matchup — Team Japan vs. Team USA, Ohtani vs. Trout — again.

This has already been crowned by some as the greatest WBC in its 17-year, five-tournament-old history. Per MLB.com, three of the WBC’s nine all-time-best games occurred this year; the New York Times said today that Ohtani helped make the WBC “real” for the first time and last night’s final may soon officially be called the most-watched baseball game ever.

What could possibly make the tournament even more enjoyable, especially for Americans who were comparatively slow to embrace the WBC as a meaningful competition? A rivalry.

Rivalries make games between competitors within them more intense for fans and, of course, for the players, who may perform better because of such conditions. As such, rivalries also make competitions more marketable.

The national teams for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are already rivals, naturally due to geographical proximity and the fact that they often face each other in international competitions, including the Pan American Games. In that tournament and others, Team USA developed a rivalry with Team Cuba, but time has eroded it. And while Team USA and Team Mexico have a natural, proximity-based rivalry of their own, as Jon Morosi recently wrote for MLB.com, “the U.S. and Mexico haven’t played often enough to cultivate a reel of memories similar to the countries’ shared soccer history.”

But Team USA just played Team Japan in arguably the tournament’s best final ever, concluding perhaps its best overall slate of games ever. If Team USA and its fans are now, finally, taking the WBC seriously, this loss is going to hang over everyone, certainly its captain, Mike Trout, until at least the next one. And you can say one thing about many, many Americans: We think we’re the best. While this sentiment may generally be true when it comes to the sport of baseball, WBC results — which, remember, are now “real,” even to Americans — have not borne that out.

Team USA has won one championship to Japan’s three in the WBC. Perhaps more importantly, the team’s respective two best players, who just engaged in a showdown for the ages, are still in their prime years. Trout will be back in 2027. Ohtani hasn’t made such promises yet, but he called last night’s victory “the best moment in my life.”

He may have just started the WBC’s best rivalry. (Trout already called last night, “round one.”)

If that’s the case, the best we thought the WBC could’ve gotten, might get even better.

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