By Allison Duffy-Davis
BROOKLYN -- The setting was unique for a late September ballgame: waves crashing, seagulls squawking, a giant Pakistani flag unfurling and the bright lights of Luna Park flashing in the backdrop of Coney Island's MCU Park. But that's part of the beauty of the World Baseball Classic.
Every four years, the international tournament showcases baseball talent from the sport's traditional powerhouses, like Japan and the Dominican Republic, to the most unlikely of participants, like the Netherlands and Australia. And it allows players, from seasoned Major Leaguers to members of previously unheard of national baseball federations, to compete against one another at venues across the globe.
The disparity in play was certainly on display at this year's Brooklyn qualifiers, which began last Thursday at the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets' Short-Season A-ball affiliate. The four-day event featured teams from Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan.
"In Pakistan," manager Syed Fakhar Ali Shah said after his team's first game, "we don't have a baseball field; we have a soccer ground. The bounce of the ball is totally different.
"Every match, every ball, my players are learning."
Pakistan made great strides but lost a second time in the tournament, 14-0, to Great Britain on Friday evening and was eliminated. Israel won twice to advance to a spot in the qualifier championship, while Great Britain stunned Brazil, 4-3, to set up a rematch with Israel on Sunday.
Ultimately, it was Israel that qualified for the World Baseball Classic for the first time, holding Great Britain scoreless through seven innings in a 9-1 victory.
"I try to approach every opportunity I get with as much passion as I can," said former Major League right-hander Jason Marquis, who pitched four perfect innings for Team Israel and was one of numerous American players of Jewish heritage on the roster. "It was definitely our goal to win this qualifier and get to the main event."
Leading up to the 2017 tournament, Major League Baseball held four qualifiers to determine the field of 16 teams that would compete in the fourth ever World Baseball Classic. In February, Australia swept the competition in the Sydney qualifier with the help of some standout offense from then-Minor Leaguers James Beresford and Logan Wade. Teams from Colombia and Mexico also advanced in their respective qualifiers in March, before the fourth and final berth was on the line.
Chants of "Pak-i-stan" echoed throughout the stadium during the opening game on the shores of Coney Island, but it was Brazil that emerged victorious in the mercy-rule shutout, winning its first game in tournament history after going 0-3 four years ago.
Managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin in each of the past two tournaments, Brazil's squad featured eight players affiliated with Major League organizations, including Dante Bichette Jr. (Yankees) and Bo Bichette (Blue Jays), sons of former MLB All-Star Dante Bichette and his Brazil-born wife, Mariana. Their other competitors in the Brooklyn qualifier, Great Britain and Israel, featured 12 and 19 Minor and Major Leaguers, respectively.
"Major League Baseball International asked me if I was interested in doing some training and player development around the world," Larkin said in 2015. "My first trip with MLB International was to Italy. That went well, and then they approached me about doing something with Brazil. So I went down to Brazil and started to work with some of the players there for a few years and really enjoyed that. They told me they wanted me to work on a more permanent basis, so I told them I'd be interested in doing that."
At the time, Larkin expressed interest in managing the team again, should the opportunity arise. Lucky for him, and for Team Brazil, it did.
"I've stayed around the game of baseball in my retirement," Larkin said. "It's what I know. It's what I love. Me giving back to the game, it's the reciprocal of what the game has given to me."
Larkin is far from the only player with a Hall of Fame pedigree to take advantage of the opportunity to participate in the WBC. Legendary Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was the bullpen coach for Great Britain, while his former San Diego teammate Steve Finley served on Larkin's staff, along with recently retired MLB pitcher LaTroy Hawkins.
Next March, storied skipper Jim Leyland will be at the helm of Team USA, and Joe Torre will act as general manager.
Even Ken Griffey Jr., who was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame this summer, jumped at the opportunity to play for Team USA in the inaugural tournament a decade ago.
"For two weeks, I really enjoyed being a part of this," said Griffey, who was named to the All-WBC team in 2006, despite the fact that the U.S. went 1-2 in pool play, defeating Japan before losing to South Korea and Mexico. "I just wish the results were different. Anything can happen on any given day. You don't have to be big to play this game. If you're consistent and make the plays, you can beat anybody."
In 2006, the Classic's inaugural year, 16 teams from five continents vied for a true world title. Japan emerged victorious thanks to the pitching prowess of soon-to-be big leaguer Daisuke Matsuzaka, who went 3-0. In 2009, the Netherlands twice upset the Dominican Republic at Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but Japan ultimately won again as Matsuzaka took home his second WBC MVP Award and Ichiro Suzuki knocked the two-run, game-winning single. Four years later, the Dominican Republic dominated, going 8-0 behind the hot bat of tournament MVP Robinson Cano.
But even more so than the results, players revel in the atmosphere that the World Baseball Classic creates. A WBC-record 54,846 fans packed Dodger Stadium to witness Team Japan's 5-3 victory over South Korea in the 2009 championship game. In all, more than 2.5 million fans have turned out to watch baseball's best represent their native and ancestral countries during the first three tournaments.
"As long as there are fans there and there's an atmosphere, that's what makes it fun for the players," said Derek Jeter, who played alongside Griffey in the 2006 tournament. "Sometimes they'll be for you, sometimes against you, but I think it makes a good atmosphere."
"I think the Classic is great for baseball," said nine-time MLB All-Star Carlos Beltran, who represented Puerto Rico in the first three incarnations of the tournament. "As a player, you play for your country and no one wants to lose. So every player that has the opportunity to play in a [meaningful] game, we're always going to give what we have."
Allison Duffy-Davis is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a managing editor for MLB.com.