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The World Baseball Classic has provided some thrilling moments and record numbers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

While Major League Baseball is still gearing up for opening day, the World Baseball Classic has been on fire. The WBC has provided thrilling moments this month, and it wraps up tonight with a championship game between two baseball powers, the U.S. and Japan. This fifth edition of the tournament has been a big hit, with record attendance and TV viewers, but injuries to prominent players are also giving fuel to WBC critics. Well, let's bring in NPR's Tom Goldman. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: I confess I've been trying to understand what exactly the WBC is. Is it correct to say the World Baseball Classic is to baseball what the World Cup is to soccer?

GOLDMAN: It is.

KELLY: OK.

GOLDMAN: Yes.

KELLY: OK. And do they get, like, as excited as World Cup fans do?

GOLDMAN: Oh, boy. Well, let's illustrate by taking a snapshot from last night. Japan played Mexico in a semifinal game. Bottom of the ninth inning, Mexico leading by a run, so close to getting to its first World Baseball Classic final - but then Japan puts two men on base. Infielder Munetaka Murakami comes up to bat. Here's the call on Japanese TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Speaking Japanese).

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: (Speaking Japanese).

GOLDMAN: How's that for some unbridled passion there, Mary Louise?

KELLY: Unbridled, unbridled. I would agree. Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Kyodo News described that as a sayonara two-run double, a walk-off winner by Murakami - probably safe to say the tens of millions of Japanese fans watching reacted like the play-by-play announcers.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I was having fun just listening to them. Do fans in other places, fans around the world get this excited about it?

GOLDMAN: Oh, they do. And I will give you some numbers to back that up. Total attendance in the first round at the last World Baseball Classic in 2017 was a little over 510,000 this time - over a million, most ever. Games held at the Tokyo Dome in Japan broke attendance records. In Phoenix, more than 47,000 fans turned out to watch Mexico shock the U.S. in an early round game. Nearly 36,000 turned out in Miami to see the U.S. beat Cuba in a semifinal game fraught with political meaning. Saint Louis Cardinals veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright, pitching for the U.S. in that game, called it as wild an environment as he'd ever pitched in. TV ratings broke records, too, from Taiwan to Korea to Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic.

KELLY: Wow. OK. All these injuries, though - who's hurt, and what effect might it have?

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah. Before I tell you that, understand this, one thing that held back the popularity of the WBC in the past. Many top major leaguers didn't sign on, saying it wasn't worth the risk of injury that might jeopardize their major league season. This time, though, some of the biggest U.S. stars did play, led by LA Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Once he signed up, other U.S. players followed. But, yes, the injury bug hit. Edwin Diaz, the all-star relief pitcher for the New York Mets, playing for Puerto Rico, tore knee ligaments while celebrating a win over the Dominican Republic. He's out for the season. Houston Astros star Jose Altuve, playing for Venezuela, got hit by a pitch, broke his thumb. He's out indefinitely. So you can see why there's been hesitation. And players may cite this tournament as why they don't play in the future.

KELLY: In a sentence, Tom, tonight's big game, the defending champion, the U.S. versus Japan - who's your money on?

GOLDMAN: Oh, boy. I'm - it's so tough. They're both awesome teams. I'm going to say Japan but absolutely won't be surprised by a U.S. win. How is that for a cop-out?

KELLY: It's a cop-out, but we'll let you get away with it. And we'll check back with you and see how it goes. NPR's Tom Goldman, thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKI SONG, "EVERY SUMMERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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