Americans are strange about their national teams. We can never quite put a finger on how excited we are supposed to be about them. We want our national teams to be everything, all at once, and if they fall short on any account, we find them lacking.
We want our national teams to be:
- Dominant. We are the United States, and we must be the best. Any small country, regardless of the sport, must be crushed under our boot. This is the USA Basketball model: We have reached the point with USA Basketball that any victory of fewer than 20 points is seen as somehow suspect.
- Fully loaded. The absolute best players must show up, or it's somehow not legitimate. If a top player wants to rest during his/her offseason, or just doesn't want to mess up his/her training regimen, they are seen as not caring about their country enough, and it devalues the whole enterprise. Our best U.S. team has to be our best U.S. team.
- Generically "American." You see this often with the USMNT, particularly in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. There was this sense among many -- including alarmingly, current USMNT head coach Bruce Arena -- that players who were born in other countries somehow weren't "American." Let's not forget Arena's quote from 2013: "Players on the national team should be -- and this is my own feeling -- they should be Americans. If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress." Arena surely regrets that quote now, but it's one you hear a lot about American national teams: People think it's somehow "cheating" to have dual-national players on a U.S. team. This is absurd, but much of what we think about our national teams is absurd.
- Underdogs. This is the key one, and the impossible one. Americans, in the face of all available evidence, believe that they are the rebels rather than the Empire. This is why we remain so obsessed with the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Americans have vast advantages over nearly every other country on earth, from financial support to training to talent pool, but we insist that we are just the scrappy blue-collar underdogs of our imagination.
This is a lot for every national team to be all at once, which is why so few teams break through the national consciousness anymore. The USWNT winning the World Cup is probably the most successful venture of recent years, both on the field and off, but that was essentially a recreation of the early stages of USA Basketball, a dominant U.S. team taking advantage of a sport that is just getting its legs internationally. (And as we saw in this month's SheBelieves Cup, the rest of the world is already catching up.) But on the whole, national teams just don't capture our hearts and minds anymore. We always find one way they're not perfect.
Which brings me to Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The Americans play their first game on Friday at 6 p.m. ET (on MLB Network and MLB.TV), against Colombia, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited. But first off, let's take a look at this lineup they put together in their exhibition game against the Twins on Wednesday:
That's a pretty impressive lineup! Andrew McCutchen is batting eighth, for one thing. But there are two ways to look at that lineup.
1. Man, what a lineup. And that bench included Paul Goldschmidt, and Josh Harrison, and Alex Bregman, and Jonathan Lucroy.
2. Hey, where's Mike Trout? Or Bryce Harper? Or Mookie Betts? Or Clayton Kershaw? Or Chris Sale?
Beyond the Box Score put together a comparison between the current Team USA roster and an idealized, everybody's-playing roster and found that Team USA had an advantage at only one position: catcher. (The pitching disparity was even larger.)
Now, this isn't meant to be a criticism of those not playing in the Classic, or even a celebration of those who are. Baseball is a tricky sport that requires a specific sort of preparation: These guys are paid a lot of money to go get themselves hurt in what is essentially an exhibition. To each his own.
But that idea, the notion that The Best Players won't be playing for Team USA and That's A Problem, is at the heart of what Americans are missing about the Classic. Whenever I talk to baseball fans about the tournament, they always say something like this, "I'll start paying attention to that when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw are on the team." This sounds like American exceptionalism, and I suppose it is, but what it mostly is is self-protection. What these people are saying is not that they will only watch Team USA if it has the best players in the game. What they are saying is that they now have an excuse if the USA loses.
This, I suspect, is what's at the heart of Americans' skepticism about the Classic, why I find it so frustrating to see other countries embracing the event while my country yawns: The Classic can't be a legitimate event because the United States has never won it and the United States is obviously the best baseball country in the world. If Trout and Harper and everyone all played and the U.S. still lost, we'd have a serious problem. But because they're not, the event itself can be devalued.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic Team USA squad can't be the world beating, Jordan/Magic/Bird Olympic team because there's no Trout and Kershaw. It can't be the underdog because there are too many good players. So with no outcomes that align with every self-scribed narrative, Americans back away from it. If Team USA loses, well, the Classic doesn't tell us anything. If Team USA wins, well, the Classic must not be all that competitive if a B-team can win it. It's depressingly results-based. The Classic so far has provided a ton of joy, and I for one am excited to get to watch my country be a part of it tonight. If they win, great, and if they don't, hey, Spring Training is flying by faster than usual, and besides, that Dominican team is a blast to watch and wow, look at what Israel's doing!
But to truly get over, the Classic needs an inspiring Team USA. It needs Americans to care about this as much as the other countries do. And as currently constructed, I'm not sure if that's possible. That's not the Classic's fault. I think it's just ours.
I'll still be out there cheering on Team USA tonight. It's my country, as little as I recognize it these days, and I want them to win. I wish more of you could be with me. But when it comes to national teams, Americans demand to be the unquestioned champions … or else they don't want to play at all.