Looking for a Triple Gold Club for Baseball

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the World Baseball Classic underway this week, now is a good time to steal an idea from another sport. In baseball, international play is a bit of an afterthought. There has never been a consistent best-on-best international tournament on par with the FIFA World Cup or Olympic ice hockey, in which players want success with the national team as much as they want success with their club teams.

Baseball didn’t have that. The Olympics, as played in the MLB regular season, have never featured better games. And that’s when the Olympic program includes baseball for the first time. The World Baseball Classic hasn’t been around long enough to gain the legitimacy that the World Cup has and is run in part by Major League Baseball.

The biggest obstacle to a serious international game in baseball is the use of pitchers. Pitcher’s workload is so strictly monitored, few players and even fewer teams are willing to lend a fragile and valuable arm to a tournament widely viewed as an exhibition. The second biggest obstacle is the lack of a strong independent governing body for the sport. for most of baseball’s history, MLB has been its driving force. Although various major leagues have emerged around the world and the sport has flourished at the amateur level, baseball has become centralized in a way that hockey, football and basketball never were, and the WBSC is not powerful enough to dictate a truly independent international competition.

Even so, the WBC now seems fully entrenched on the baseball calendar, after more than a decade of inconsistent scheduling and the constant threat of cancellation. Mike Trout and Juan Soto have made their WBC debuts a priority this year, giving the event a new level of prestige.

Which brings up the idea I want to steal: The Triple Gold Club.

Men’s ice hockey, unlike baseball, has a strong history of high-level international competition, dating back to the 1920 Summer Olympics and its inclusion in every Winter Olympics since the organization’s inception in 1924. women’s ice skating first held a world championship in 1990 and became an Olympic event starting with the 1998 Nagano Games). The IIHF has sanctioned senior men’s world championships for nearly 100 years, with various age group tournaments garnering international attention in their own right. When Olympic scheduling and regulations kept North America’s top pros out of the Games, the NHL, with various partners, has occasionally promoted best-of-best tournaments in the form of the Canada Cup and the World Cup of Hockey.

Because of this long tradition in international hockey, the IIHF tracks members of what is called the Triple Gold Club – the 30 players and one coach who have won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and an IIHF World Championship gold medal.

Is there an equivalent in baseball? Not really. Hockey has not one but two international leagues that equal or surpass the WBC in stature. So what could be an alternative understanding of the Triple Gold Club?

One option would be to select players who have won championships at each of the three levels of the sport: amateur, professional and international. This would include players who have won 1) a College World Series, a Japanese Koshien title or what the heck, a Little League World Series 2) a World Series and 3) an Olympic or WBC title.

And someone did: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who won both the Koshien in spring and summer in 1998, the WBC in 2006 and 2009, the Japan Series in 2004 and 2017, and the World Series in 2007. Mark Kotsay came tantalizingly close to completing the triple in just over two years: Won the College World Series with Cal State Fullerton in 1995, then an Olympic bronze medal in 1996, then played 14 games with the Florida Marlins in 1997 but did not make the their run to the World Series.

And several participants in this year’s WBC have amateur titles. Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar won the Little League World Series in 2004, and there are three College World Series winners on WBC rosters — if you know who they are off the top of your head, you deserve an award.

None of these College World Series winners (Brady Singer, Florida 2017, Team USA; Michael Roth, South Carolina 2010 and 2011, Team Great Britain; Zander Wiel, Vanderbilt 2014, Netherlands) have won a World Series. In fact, only four active players, all Americans, have done the College World Series-World Series double: Justin Turner, Walker Buehler, Dansby Swanson and Jackie Bradley Jr. The only player to win a WBC and a College World Series is Sam Dyson, who is unlikely to get a chance to win a World Series anytime soon.

This falls into a few thorny aspects of including amateurs in baseball’s Triple Gold Club: It eliminates the majority of professional baseball players who did not emerge through specific Japanese or American talent. And while a player can complete the legs of the hockey Triple Gold Club in any order, the same could not be said for a baseball Triple Gold Club that has an amateur element.

This opens up an obvious alternative: the World Series, the WBC and the Olympics. This definition was complicated a bit by the irregular scheduling of both the Olympics and the WBC, and the fact that the two were not reliably on the calendar at the same time. Additionally, active major leaguers have never competed in the Olympics, although the NBP sends its stars and many American stars have participated in or won medals in the Olympics either before or after their major league careers.

This definition of the Triple Gold Club is not particularly constructive because only two countries—Japan and the U.S.—have won both the Olympic and WBC gold medals, and in both cases, their Olympic and WBC titles were separated by more than a decade:

International Baseball Tournament

Year Competition Winner
1984 Olympic Games* Japan
1988 Olympic Games* United States
1992 Olympic Games Cuba
1996 Olympic Games Cuba
2000 Olympic Games United States
2004 Olympic Games Cuba
2006 WBC Japan
2008 Olympic Games South Korea
2009 WBC Japan
2013 WBC Dominican Republic
2017 WBC United States
2021 Olympic Games Japan
2023 WBC TBD

*Exhibition sports

The only player to win both is Masahiro Tanaka, who won the 2009 WBC as a 20-year-old and then took home Olympic gold in 2021. As Yankees fans will no doubt remind you, Tanaka never won a World Series during of North America despite numerous trips to the playoffs. But he did win a Japan Series in 2013, so a liberal interpretation of that Triple Gold Club would have him in. (Matsuzaka’s best Olympic finish was a bronze medal in 2004.)

Keen observers will note that while Japan is not taking Tanaka to this WBC, it is bringing nine players who won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Six of them were also on the team that won the WBSC Premier12 in 2019, and while none of them have yet played a competitive MLB game, six of them have, like Tanaka, won the Japan Series:

Team Japan, Tokyo Olympics and 2023 WBC

Player Premiere 2019 12 Japan series champion
Hiromi Itoh No No
Yoshinobu Yamamoto Yes 2022
Ryoji Kuribayashi No No
Takuya Kai Yes 2014-15, 2017-2020
Tetsuto Yamada Yes 2021
Sosuke Genda Yes No
Munetaka Murkami No 2021
Kensuke Kondo Yes 2016
Masataka Yoshida Yes 2022

South Korea have never won the WBC, but two members of the 2023 squad won Olympic gold at the Beijing Games in 2008. They and three of their current teammates were also in the team that took the inaugural Premier12 title in 2015:

International champions of South Korea

And of course any mention of Hyun Soo Kim is a good excuse to spend the rest of the day jamming to his super catchy theme song:

Hockey’s Triple Gold Club doesn’t see league titles won in Russia or Sweden or Finland — as prestigious as they are — as equivalent to the Stanley Cup. So while winning a Japan Series, a WBC title and an Olympic gold medal is impressive, it’s not the same as adding a World Series to the mix. So far, no Japanese or Korean player has won Olympic and World Series gold. Yoshida is the only one of those players currently signed to an MLB team. the Red Sox aren’t among the favorites to win the World Series this season, but he could add a World Series title to his resume somewhere down the line.

Using the strict Triple Gold Club definition — Olympics, World Series, WBC — no one has completed all three legs, but many players have managed to get two-thirds of the way there. (This list includes the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, in which baseball was not an official medal event.):

Two Legs of the Triple Gold Club

*Played in the regular season for the World Series champions and remained in the organization, but did not appear in the playoffs

Of the players who already have two legs in the Triple Gold Club, Canó and Strop are the only ones returning for 2023. Strop switched allegiance from the Dominican Republic to the Netherlands for this tournament and a win with the Dutch would be a unique achievement. But in addition to the 11 Olympic gold medalists joining the WBC, the 39 World Series champions could add another leg to their Triple Gold Club campaign:

World Series Winners in 2023 WBC

*Played in the regular season for the World Series champions and remained in the organization, but did not appear in the playoffs

Some of these players are in a better position than others to win a title. The only thing I really learned from making this list is that we might be sleeping on the Dominican Republic, which basically carried the entire Astros unhittable bullpen from last year. You can just talk about Mexico or Israel, but I’m not holding my breath about Canada or Nicaragua.

But most of the favored teams have players who could add another third of the Triple Gold Club with a win at this year’s WBC. After that, it depends on how Yoshida’s tenure with the Red Sox goes, or how successfully the American players can lobby (or bribe, more likely) the IOC to bring baseball back into the full-time Olympic program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *