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Why Orioles fans should watch the World Baseball Classic

5 reasons for Orioles fans to watch the World Baseball Classic

The long slow drudgery of winter is coming to an end. We know this because balls are popping gloves and bats are swinging with the Baltimore Orioles down in Sarasota, Fla.

But as we prepare eagerly for the start of the 2017 season, some of the Orioles are taking a break from spring training to take part in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that takes place every four years.

While it’s easy to dismiss the tournament as an unwelcome interruption of what really matters – the Baltimore Orioles’ quest for the 2017 postseason (and championship?) – it’s actually a pretty cool event.

(You can discuss the World Baseball Classic on the BSL Board here.)

Listed below are five reasons every Orioles fan should check it out:

Manny Machado will be playing shortstop for the Dominican Republic

We all know Machado can play short and play it well, but this isn’t so much about him playing short as it is him taking a leadership role on what is an absolutely loaded veteran-laden team.

Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Carlos Santana, Jose Bautista and Nelson Cruz are some of the heavy hitters on this team. Some major, major stars. Some of them are past their prime, true, but even those guys – like Ramirez, Reyes and Bautista – have strong pedigrees and cast strong shadows on any clubhouse.

Now here comes the Orioles’ 24-year-old star, manning one of the key defensive positions and likely hitting near the top of the lineup. How will he fit in? Will he take on the mantle of leader of this veteran team, the defending tournament champions, no less? Is he ready?

“I don’t know. We’ll see,” he said. “I know I did everything I could to prepare myself in the offseason and in Spring Training to get ready for it. I’m just excited to get into some real games and get some real at-bats under your belt. The lights turn on and it’s a different story, so we’ll see on Thursday if we’re ready or not.”

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to watch the Dominicans play, new Orioles catcher Welington Castillo will also be on their roster, which leads us to our next item on the list.

You can get your first look at new Orioles Welington Castillo and Vidal Nuno

Okay you’ve had a chance to watch these guys in spring training games, but WBC games have a little more riding on them. This will be a chance to see these two guys in games that actually mean something.

No, they’re not the same as regular season MLB games, and pitchers are on a strict pitch count, but it’s still closer to the real thing than Grapefruit League games are. If you’ve ever seen the crowd at a Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic game, you know what I’m talking about.

Castillo, who had a .745 OPS and hit 14 home runs for Arizona last season, will likely be starting behind the plate for the Dominican Republic. The team’s only other catcher listed on the roster is St. Louis Cardinals backup Alberto Rosario, who is the same age as Castillo but far less experienced.

Nuno, who figures to be in the Orioles’ bullpen to start the season, will be pitching in the tournament for Mexico. He’s joined on the Mexican roster by former Orioles Yovani Gallardo and Miguel Gonzalez.

Jonathan Schoop should be a key player on the squad from The Netherlands

Don’t scoff at the team from Europe. These guys are no joke, thanks in large part to the ability to mine talent from the Dutch colony of Curacao.

Schoop will be joined on the roster by notables like Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Jurickson Profar, Andrelton Simmons and Schoop’s older brother Sharlon, a 29-year-old playing in the O’s minor league system. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is listed on the team’s Designated Pitcher Pool.

The Dutch have had success in this event in the past, reaching the second round in 2009 by beating the Dominicans twice, and advancing to the semifinals in 2013 with two victories over Cuba. The Netherlands, which had baseball introduced to its populace in the early 1900s, is the 7th-ranked team in the world.

Also, what’s not to like about a coaching staff that includes manager Hensley Muelens, pitching coach Bert Blyleven and bench coach Andruw Jones?

Adam Jones is playing for Team USA

Jones is one of only two center fielders on the U.S. roster. The other is Andrew McCutchen, who has been moved to a corner spot by the Pirates, so Jones should figure to get plenty of playing time.

After a difficult 2016 season marred by injuries (though he did hit 29 homers), Jones has looked really good so far this spring, hitting .353 with a 1.176 OPS in his first six games. But as mentioned before, these games will mean a little bit more. The pitchers won’t merely be working on getting into shape for the season, they’ll be focused on winning games, so it will be interesting to see how he looks.

“The WBC’s important, very important, but the most important thing is playing for the Orioles and playing from April to hopefully October,” Jones said last month. “I understand that’s most important, but I’m going to go out there and give my all for Team USA because it is very, very important for me to go out there and represent my family.”

This will be Jones’ second trip to the WBC, as he played for the U.S. in 2013 as well. He slashed just .182/.240/.227 and had six strikeouts in 22 at-bats. Hopefully he’ll do better this time around.

Also, as an added bonus, O’s reliever Mychal Givens will be in the Team USA bullpen.

It’s really good, entertaining baseball

If you’re reading about the Orioles on this web site, you’re probably not just a casual Orioles fan. You’re probably not even just an Orioles fan, but a hardcore fan of the game itself.

This competition, while not anywhere near as big as soccer’s World Cup, has a similar flavor. And with the sport being out of the Olympics since 2008 (it’s coming back in 2020), it’s the only chance you really get to root for your country, as opposed to your favorite professional franchise.

“It’s representing your country. You’ve got your country on your chest,” Jones said. You throw away the MLB. You’ve got the United States on your chest. That’s just a different feeling.”

The WBC also is a great reminder that while the sport is often called “America’s Pastime,” it’s a game that has huge fan bases across the world that love it just as much as you do. Watch a game featuring Japan or South Korea, Cuba, Venezuela or Dominican Republic to get a feel for that.

The U.S. plays the Dominican Republic on March 11, a game that pits not only the WBC’s co-favorites against each other, but also Jones against Machado.

“If you’re in another uniform, you could be my momma. I don’t care,” Jones said of Machado. “You’re in another uniform, you’re an opponent. Treat it as an opponent. After the game is after the game, but during the game, it is what it is.”

The tournament is also a perfect reminder that the Americans do not own the sport we invented. The U.S. has never even played in the championship of this event, let alone won it, and teams like Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico – in addition to Team USA — are fielding what are practically MLB All-Star lineups.

That’s pretty cool.

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Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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