Sports Baseball

World Baseball Classic searching for an audience

By Torben Rolfsen

Éric Gagné pitches for the Ottawa Champions during a game against the Quebec Capitales at the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park in Ottawa Mon., September 5, 2016. The 40-year-old National Baseball League all-star grew up in the small town of Mascouche, near Montreal, Quebec. (Jason Ransom / Ottawa Citizen)

Éric Gagné pitches for the Ottawa Champions during a game against the Quebec Capitales at the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park in Ottawa Mon., September 5, 2016. The 40-year-old National Baseball League all-star grew up in the small town of Mascouche, near Montreal, Quebec. (Jason Ransom / Ottawa Citizen)

Unfurl your flag and break out the face paint: it’s World Baseball Classic time.

The planet’s most mysterious quadrennial sporting event is back and desperately searching for an audience.

Sixteen teams divided up into four regional pools begin play this week in such far-flung locales as South Korea, Tokyo, Mexico and Miami.

Canada gets underway against the Dominican Republic Thursday at 3 p.m. PT on Sportsnet, as we continue our tradition of playing baseball against countries we like to vacation in.

Before then, they’ll have a pair of exhibition games versus the Blue Jays (Tuesday) and Yankees (Wednesday).

The Canadian roster features eight players who played Major League Baseball in 2016.

I know, that begs the question, what were the other 17 guys doing? We’re getting to that.

The roster also includes 41-year-old Eric Gagne, who hasn’t played since 2008 (not a misprint), and is currently a guest instructor in the L.A. Dodgers camp, and 39-year-old Ryan Dempster, who retired four years ago and is now a Chicago Cubs special assistant and MLB Network commentator.

This is like Ray Ferraro suiting up for Team Canada in last September’s World Cup of Hockey.

If you’re thinking the WBC has a marketing problem, you’d be right.

While relatively popular outside of North America, TV ratings staggered from the 2009 to 2013 tournaments.

There is no doubting the popularity of baseball in this country.

Witness the national interest in the Toronto Blue Jays (now) annual playoff run.

The passion and dedication of the Montreal Baseball Project trying to bring the Expos back is admirable.

On a smaller scale, the Vancouver Canadians (a short-season Single-A Blue Jays affiliate) have something special going at Nat Bailey Stadium and sellout regularly in the summer.

Youth baseball participation is soaring.

Yet somehow the fervor doesn’t translate to the casual sports fan when it comes to the WBC.

It wouldn’t hurt if a villain or two emerged, something that always helps in international sport play.

Until the best current players commit to the tourney, and a format is adopted that puts top matchups on TV in a time slot and place where viewers can actually find them, the WBC will continue to struggle to capture glowing hearts and minds.

The battle resumes this week.