It’s been six years since the United States won the 2017 World Baseball Classic, an unforgettable tournament that featured a classic duel between the States and Japan in the semi-final and a stellar Puerto Rican team in the final. After the 2021 edition of the Classic was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament has returned for 2023, featuring the most teams ever for such a world stage: 20 competitors vying for the final crown.
The WBC highlights the best players in the world, offering perhaps the truest example that baseball is not just America’s pastime, but a global game that many countries enjoy. Now, with 20 teams making the final cut, several new upstart squads have joined the fray, with three countries making it for the first time: Nicaragua, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain.
Why has it taken so long for these three to make the big dance? And do they have what it takes to make a splash, advancing to the elimination rounds? Before the games officially start on March 8, let’s take a look at some of these new competitors.
When Nicaragua advanced to the World Baseball Classic after winning the 2022 Panama Qualifier, one word seemed to be on the minds of the Nicaraguan baseball community: finalmente.
It’s been a long time coming for the Nicaraguans, as baseball is the most popular sport in the country. According to baseball historians, the first game in Nicaragua was played over 130 years ago, and the national team has always done well in local regional competitions, winning several Pan-American titles.
While political unrest plagued the country for several years and made it difficult for MLB teams to scout locally, several star pitchers did emerge from the country: Marvin Benard, Vicente Padilla, and Dennis Martinez (known as El Presidente, he retired as the winningest Latino pitcher), just to name a few.
Now, after years of trying and two failed attempts to break through – they lost in the qualifying rounds in 2013 and 2017 – Nicaragua has finally made it to the next stage. Winning crucial games over Argentina and Brazil, the team saw stellar performances from a few present and former MLB-affiliated players. Osman Gutierrez – a former Blue Jays minor leaguer – was a critical arm for the team in the qualifiers, pitching six innings and giving up no runs and three hits in the clinching 3-1 win over Brazil. Other notable names include Dwight Britton, a Mariners castoff, and Brandon Steven Leyton, a shortstop currently working his way through the Cincinnati Reds organization.
Several major league players will join the team for the actual tournament. Jonathan Loáisiga, a bullpen arm for the New York Yankees who threw 48 innings in 2022, has signed on for the 2023 WBC. So has Erasmo Ramírez, an MLB veteran with six teams under his belt, who posted a 2.92 ERA last season. With these two big leaguers – along with plenty of players who have shined in the Latin American leagues – Nicaragua could pose some real danger in the main tournament, especially if they can harness the crowd’s energy as they did in the qualifiers.
One of the most noteworthy elements of Nicaraguan baseball is the environment, as many fans have reported that the energy of the crowd – including the customary bands and cheerleaders – is one of the most intense they’ve experienced. The team had an impressive amount of support behind them in the qualifier, with many making the trip to Panama via a 36-hour bus ride, and it was felt on the field.
Considering that Nicaragua is a true baseball country, the team’s underdog role, and the fan support they could enjoy stateside, Nicaragua may be just the upstart squad you’re looking to root for in the upcoming tournament. Unfortunately for the Hollywood-lovers, however, there are two other teams that have a very similar story.
As JapanBall’s own Carter Cromwell put it, “heart and grit” are the critical elements behind these newcomers. The Czech team earned their berth as the loser’s bracket champion in the European qualifier, winning games against France, Germany and Spain, even after losing to the Spanish 21-7 in their opening game.
Unlike Nicaragua, the Czech Republic doesn’t exactly have a lengthy history with the sport. It was actually banned in the country following World War II, as the new Communist government – part of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain – wanted no Western imagery in the country and decided that “America’s pastime” had no place under their new regime. While baseball appeared in amateur and collegiate leagues around the country in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the fall of the USSR in 1989 that baseball players began to compete regularly without scrutiny from their government.
As a result, it’s been incredibly difficult for Czech players to appear in any greater league. The closest anyone has gotten is Martin Cervenka, who appeared in multiple spring training games for the Baltimore Orioles in 2019 and 2020 and was a stalwart in the minor leagues for years. Even though no Czechian player has ever broken through to the big leagues, their national team has now made it to the highest international stage.
It won’t be easy, however: the only two players on their current roster with MLB experience are Cervenka – who is no doubt the star of the team – and Eric Sogard, a 36-year-old second baseman who last saw MLB action with the Cubs in 2021 and has Czech heritage on his mother’s side.
The rest of the team is a band of amateurs, with nearly all of their players having full-time professional jobs outside of baseball, as the semi-professional Czech Extraliga only plays on weekends. Star pitcher Martin Schneider is a firefighter, regularly missing games while on duty at the firehouse. Their center fielder, Arnošt Dubový, is a high school geography teacher, and their manager, Pavel Chadim, is a leading neurologist back home. Even Cervenka now works locally in a plastics company; for almost every player, this is just a hobby.
To put this into context: a part-time team is going toe-to-toe with Shohei Ohtani and the rest of the Japanese team of All-Stars to open the international competition of a lifetime. That’s what the Czech team will have to do when they open international play in Tokyo.
While they may be in unfamiliar territory, they may be able to bring some elements of home with them. During the qualifying round in Regensburg, Germany, their wins were accompanied by a a throng of boisterous fans, watching their homegrown talent make worldwide waves. While they may be used to small crowds – the biggest park in Prague sits less than 10,000 – they’ll quickly have to adjust to a new environment in the Tokyo Dome, which sits 45,600.
To recap: you have a team of amateurs, from a country where baseball was banned for decades at a time, and their membership on the team is mostly a glorified hobby, playing in one of the most famous venues in the world, for a chance at international glory.
Do you need any other reason to root for them?
The English have a relatively strong history with baseball, winning the inaugural Baseball World Cup – considered a worthy alternative to the WBC until its folding in 2011 – in 1938, and having a competing presence on the international stage for the past few decades, including winning the silver medal at the 2007 European Baseball Championship. They’ve also had quite a few notable players in MLB history; Bobby Thomson, author of the “Shot Around the World” for the New York Giants, was born in Scotland.
The reason the UK has had such a struggle with the international scene is because of a lack of support from their government. After winning the silver at the 2007 Euros, UK Sport refused to provide further funding to the team, preventing them from competing in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers, crippling the team from international competition for the next several years. While they did compete in several qualifiers for the next few years, they finally broke through in 2022, winning the European tournament in dramatic fashion; they won the winner’s bracket with a 10-9 comeback victory over Spain.
The most fascinating part of the English national team is the varied backgrounds their team has: some are British, others are English-born Americans, and others are from the Bahamas and other English-Caribbean islands. The unique situation for Britain is that players can claim English heritage if their country of origin was once an English colony.
Team GB features a variety of American-born role players. For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Trayce Thompson will suit up for the UK in March, as will Harry Ford (“Prince Harry”?), a dynamic 20-year-old top prospect for the Mariners who’ll don the catcher’s mask. There’s also Matt Koperniak, an outfielder in the Cardinals organization, and Vance Worley, a pitcher who last saw MLB action with the Miami Marlins in 2017.
As a colony of the United Kingdom until 1973, the Bahamas have had plenty of players see Major League success recently. Without a credible Bahamian national team, however, star players could don the Union Jack for the Classic: Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Tahnaj Thomas, Toronto Blue Jays prospect Chavez Young, and Anfernee Seymour, a former MLB outfielder, are all clear examples. Marlins superstar Jazz Chisholm Jr. also expressed interest in playing, but ultimately chose to sit out due to injury concerns.
The patchwork of players makes Britain a fascinating team to watch for this upcoming WBC, especially as they dominated their opposition in the qualifiers. They destroyed France 14-4 in their opening game, and knocked around host Germany with an 8-1 score before a dramatic clinching victory over Spain. With a nothing-to-lose approach and talented players like Ford, Seymour, Thompson, and Thomas at the helm, Team GB is a young team that could potentially upset traditional powers like USA or Mexico. Even if they don’t make the elimination rounds, be sure to watch out for this team over the coming years as they solidify themselves as one of the best baseball countries in Europe.
Other potent notables
While Great Britain, Czech Republic, and Nicaragua are making their first appearances in the WBC, there are other young squads that should be fun to watch in the upcoming games. Israel and Colombia, for example, are making just their second appearances in the tournament.
There’s already been plenty written about Israel’s team in recent years, as they’ve shown they have the ability to hang with some of the best; they came in 6th during their first WBC Appearance in 2017, and in 5th during the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. More players have joined their ranks over the years, both on the field – like Joc Pederson – and in the dugout. Coaches for Israel this time around include skipper Ian Kinsler, coach Brad Ausmus, and hitting coach Kevin Youkillis.
Another notable team is Colombia, who earned their WBC berth after qualifying for the first time in 2017, a showing that saw them take teams like the United States and the Dominican Republic to extra innings. The excitement the team felt then has led to a new buzz around the sport in the country, and now they have quite the Major League roster for their second outing. All-Stars José Quintana and Julio Teheran are a potent one-two punch for their rotation, and current Major Leaguers like Jorge Alfaro, Gio Urshela and Jordan Díaz could do some real damage in the batting order. Could Columbia overcome the odds and become their own powerhouse?
Regardless of who wins this year, the World Baseball Classic has truly become the premier showcase of international talent, and of how baseball stretches over oceans and beyond borders. Keep your eyes peeled for the impossible; it seems to happen every WBC!