Mike Trout won over by the fun and passion on display at World Baseball Classic

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Tuesday March 14th, 2017

The 2017 edition of the World Baseball Classic has already produced its fair share of excitement, upsets and Cinderella teams, with plenty of dramatic rallies and come-from-behind wins through the first week of play. And all of that energy hasn't escaped the notice of the best American player not taking part in this year's tournament: Angels star Mike Trout, who told the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna that, if Team USA comes calling for the 2021 squad, he'll likely be there.

“I mean, definitely, in the future, for sure,” Trout said Monday, when asked if this spring’s tournament has increased his desire to play in the next WBC. “If I get the opportunity to do it again, I’ll probably do it.”

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“The games have been good, fun to watch,” Trout said. “The park in Miami was sold out. That’s good for baseball. A lot of people are saying baseball is falling off the map, but with the World Series last year and now the WBC, it’s definitely helping out.”

While Trout's participation isn't guaranteed—and neither, for that matter, is the 2021 WBC, though MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that the tournament will continue—what's notable about the two-time AL MVP's stance isn't so much that he's willing to put on the red, white and blue for the first time in his career, but that the visible energy and fun of the WBC has pushed him in that direction. In particular, Trout pointed to last Saturday's first-round game between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic—a wild, back-and-forth affair at Marlins Park in which Team USA took an early 5–0 lead, only for the powerhouse Dominican lineup to bash its way to a 7–5 win, punctuated by an eighth-inning Nelson Cruz home run that sent the fans and his Dominican teammates into hysterics. After the game, Cruz said that home run was the biggest accomplishment of his career, one that's included two trips to the World Series and 2011 ALCS MVP honors after he hit a record six homers in six games.

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It's hard to watch the sheer joy of the players at the WBC—from the Dominicans to Team USA after walking off against Colombia in its first game of the tournament to the likes of Venezuela or Israel or Japan as they all advanced to the second round—and not feel like this is the way the sport should be played: full of passion and emotion. Every Dominican home run—every Dominican run-scoring hit, for that matter—brings the entire team spilling out of the dugout. Puerto Rico's young stars have emphatically celebrated their big plays, from Francisco Lindor's jaw-dropping homer against Mexico to Carlos Correa's bomb against Italy. Last night, Venezuela's Rougned Odor unleashed a stupendous bat flip and strutted out of the batter's box on a ball he thought was a homer but hit the top of the wall and ended up being a single, and while that wasn't exactly the smartest decision on his part, it was a hit that drove in the go-ahead run for his country in the ninth inning of a must-win game, and it was easy to see how much that meant to him.

Indeed, these games and this tournament matter deeply to the players involved, particularly those from countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Japan, where baseball is king and there is no other international championship to play for. That emotional investment raises the stakes and makes the product better and more fun for everyone. And while energy like that can't and shouldn't be expected over the course of a 162-game season—a strikeout that gets the Reds out of a fourth-inning–bases-loaded jam against the Brewers in mid-June isn't exactly going to inspire the same level of feeling as one that keeps a team alive in an international tournament—as Trout points out, the joy that is present throughout those games is what the sport needs, more than any rule change or pace-of-play initiative. It shouldn't come as a shock that players having fun and expressing themselves is appealing, particularly when contrasted with the muted tenor of the regular season and its tired parade of unwritten rules policing and self-appointed guardians of the game. A game where players can flip their bats and pump their fists like they do in the WBC without worrying about getting a fastball to the ear in the next at-bat is a more interesting and more marketable game than the current product.

It also can't be overstated how big it is to have the best player in baseball throw his support behind the WBC, particularly given Trout's feelings toward the tournament as no more than an exhibition-level sideshow; in his remarks to DiGiovanna, Trout equated his non-participation in the WBC to his decision not to take part in the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby. Those two events aren't nearly the same—one is essentially the highest-level international baseball tournament in the world, and the other is a dinger contest in which someone wins a weird-looking trophy—but it's easy to understand why Trout felt that way. The WBC is held at a decidedly inopportune time, and for many players (particularly the U.S. ones), the reward for taking part (another weird-looking trophy) doesn't outweigh the risk of getting injured and hurting your team's chance to win baseball's ultimate weird-looking trophy. Trout and others viewed the WBC as non-essential at best and a distraction at worst. But the visible fun of this year's WBC has already gone a long way to change that for Trout, and the hope is now that other American stars will be inspired to embrace the tournament as well.

In its concentrated blasts of unadulterated fun, the 2017 WBC has been a terrific ambassador and guide for what baseball can and should be, and it's no surprise that players like Trout who have previously been on the sidelines want to get in on the action after watching their teammates and countrymen get to go crazy in mid-March. After all, if the choice is between a meaningless spring training game where a bat flip is frowned upon or a passionate game with stakes and the freedom to be yourself and act like a kid, which would you rather be a part of?

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