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What Ronald Acuña Jr.’s comments mean for the World Baseball Classic

The Braves won't allow Acuña to play for Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic. That Acuña is objecting so loudly marks an imporant milestone for the WBC.

In early 2013, Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin declared to anyone who would listen that he would represent Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. At the time, the NHL and IOC had major disagreements about the use of professional players at the world’s biggest hockey tournament, but Ovechkin didn’t care about his club, his union, his league, or anything except for his country. When the puck dropped in Russia, he would be there wearing his country’s colors.

Ovechkin’s insistence to represent his country in an international tournament over the wishes of his employer isn’t a new story. This is a regular occurrence every four years during the Olympics and the World Cup for various professional hockey, basketball, and fútbol players prioritizing international glory over their club’s achievements. But, notably, this doesn’t happen in baseball.

This is because before 2006, there was no international baseball tournament that regularly featured MLB players, and thus no baseball tournament that equaled the glory of the basketball event at the Summer Olympics, the hockey event at the Winter Olympics, or the World Cup. And even though the World Baseball Classic has run four times since 2006, it still doesn’t have the reputation of its sister events, playing more like an exhibition series than a legitimate international competition.

Ronald Acuña Jr. just changed that. And he’s not even playing in the upcoming tournament.

Acuña speaking out when others stay silent

Acuña is the best player on the Atlanta Braves, one of the ten best players in MLB, and would be the best player on Team Venezuela at the Classic. Of course, he would be if the Braves allowed him to represent Venezuela. But despite Acuña being fully healthy and recently playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, and despite the WBC updating its rules stating that MLB teams cannot block healthy players from participating, the Braves are not allowing Acuña to play in the WBC.

This sucks, of course. Acuña is great and a blast to watch, and just his presence alone makes Venezuela a dark horse contender for the title. Fans of the WBC, especially those supporting Venezuela, should be heartbroken that their best player won’t put on La Vinotinto this March. But no one looks as heartbroken as Acuña:

It should be noted that Acuña is not the only player that MLB teams are blocking from WBC participation. Jazz Chisholm, who is to the Miami Marlins what Acuña is to the Braves, will not be representing Great Britain on account of the club’s wishes. The same goes for the New York Mets and Kodai Senga (Japan), the Chicago Cubs and Trey Mancini (Italy), and the Cleveland Guardians and Josh Naylor (Canada). The difference here is that Chisholm, Senga, Mancini, and Naylor all agreed with their clubs that preparation for the upcoming regular season is more critical than the Classic. Acuña disagrees.

Unlike Ovechkin, Acuña doesn’t wield any real power to convince the Braves to change their mind. But that doesn’t mean he can’t complain, as he did very loudly on his IG account before taking the post down a few hours later (his entire account has since been deleted following an incident in Venezuela). Outside of Braves fans happy that their oft-injured superstar will be sitting out the event, the entire baseball world is supporting Acuña and his desire to have fun at what should be the most incredible baseball event in the world. And he’s not the only player who has fought the power to express his desire to play in March.

Not the only player to take the WBC seriously

Though Acuña is the first superstar to speak out in opposition to his club regarding the WBC, he is not the first player to treat the event as seriously as he does. There is a rumor that the sport’s greatest player Shohei Ohtani agreed to join the Los Angeles Angels from Japan’s NPB on a condition that allows him to play in the WBC regardless of the club’s wishes. Marcus Stroman, MVP of the 2017 WBC with the United States, is representing Puerto Rico this time around just to be able to continue pitching in the event.

Most crucially, a handful of Cuban MLB stars ignored politics and jumped at the opportunity to represent their home country when the country’s baseball federation was allowed to invite defectors to the team. Just about every team participating is looking for any way to get as much major league talent as possible, and more than ever MLB stars are volunteering enthusiastically to wave their country flags.

Acuña is already a game changer as one of the game’s few five-tool players that impacts winning everywhere he plays. Now he’s changing the game another way. By expressing his profound disappointment at his inability to compete at the highest international level, he gives credibility to the World Baseball Classic as a serious international tournament. Baseball fans will miss him this March, but if the number of All-Stars showing up on nearly every team is any indication, this should be one of the most explosive baseball tournaments ever, even without his participation.