Baseball Does the World

07.9.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

As good an idea as next spring’s World Baseball Classic is — and it is an excellent one — a good idea poorly executed is worth no more than a bad one.
A variety of problems plague this attempt at setting up a World Cup for baseball, ranging from practical issues such as what Japanese teams feel is an inequitable distribution of revenues to more abstract concerns such as whether the tournament is to be genuinely international or just a bit of American cultural imperialism.
In the long term, provided Major League Baseball and its partners are sufficiently committed to the project, these problems can be solved. In the near term, there is potential for the inaugural tournament — to be held in March 2006 — to turn into a disaster.
The basic problem seems to be that in their rush to finally make the long discussed event a reality, the organizers neglected to think through certain implications of their decisions. For instance, neither MLB owners nor players particularly wanted to interrupt the schedule in the middle of the summer, forfeiting a couple hundred games and their attendant revenues. Nor, probably, could they have done so even had they wanted to — teams’ broadcast partners have their say, as well. So the tournament will be held at a time of year when players are still preparing for the long season.

This poses any number of issues for player health and effectiveness. Say the Cubs’ Mark Prior is selected as a member of the American team. At a time when he would normally be limited to around 75 pitches in spring-training games against lineups stocked with fringe players and prospects, he could end up pitching in a game televised worldwide against a Dominican lineup featuring Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, and possibly Alex Rodriguez. Either he will pitch as he normally would in spring, leading to a game that represents something less than the height of competition, or he will pitch at full exertion, putting himself at risk for injury or diminished effectiveness in September 2006, when the Cubs could be counting on him to pitch them to a division title.
Another example of a hastily made decision that could undermine the tournament is the baffling choice of venues. The 16 teams invited to the tournament are divided into four pools. The first — consisting of Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea — will reasonably enough play in Japan. The second pool — Puerto Rico, Panama, Cuba, and Italy — will play in Puerto Rico. The other two pools will play in Arizona and Florida, where, coincidentally enough, MLB conducts spring training.
While there are no doubt sound logistical reasons for this, it’s puzzling that South Africa, the Netherlands, Australia, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic should be expected to play for national pride on American soil. All games after the initial rounds will be played in major league stadiums, making this in many ways seem less like a genuinely international event than like Tommy inviting Billy over to his house to play ball.
This may seem reasonable to Americans convinced of their own superiority in all matters baseball; it will seem less so to Dominicans and Venezuelans, who will note that their national teams are at least equal to America’s.
The Dominican team, after all, in addition to the above-named murderers’ row, could feature starting pitchers Pedro Martinez and Bartolo Colon, 49-save man Francisco Cordero, and a lineup that would count Alfonso Soriano, Jose Guillen, and Aramis Ramirez among its worst hitters.
Venezuela doesn’t quite have the offensive talent of the D.R. (then again, neither does America), but no lineup featuring Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez will need to scratch for runs. The nation also boasts a stunning variety of infielders, from devastating hitters like Carlos Guillen and Melvin Mora, to defenders like Cesar Izturis and Omar Vizquel. It also has what could be the best pitching in the tournament: Cy Young winner Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, and Freddy Garcia are all Venezuelans, as is closer Francisco Rodriguez, who in 2002 had an October Mariano Rivera could envy.
Relegating these teams to something like second-class status goes against the ideals of equality between and among nations on which such international competition is at least theoretically premised. Similarly, Mexico and Canada (which with Rich Harden, Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, and Eric Gagne could have the pitching to stun the world and win the whole thing) could easily have hosted games in their own stadiums instead of playing the entire tournament on foreign soil. In some ways, this makes the Classic seem like just another way for MLB to promote its brand.
That’s a shame, because simply by doing its part to ensure that the best players play the game as well as it can be played, MLB will be doing all it needs to promote itself. If this were done with a bit more humility, common sense, and willingness to compromise, the tournament might even do something more.
The first World Baseball Classic will be an experiment; for it to become a recurring event, all sorts of kinks will have to be worked out, and all sorts of ideas will prove failures. The most important thing is patience. Great ideas are worth carrying out well.

The story of baseball in America has always been intimately tied to the story of communications technology. The game began to explode into the national consciousness soon after the 1886 invention of the linotype, which — by enabling operators to rapidly set printing plates — gave rise to the mass circulation newspaper. Radio brought the game into homes and factories. Highways and modern irrigation, which encouraged the great population movement toward the Pacific, forced baseball to expand past St. Louis, which had been its western frontier for nearly a century.
In none of these cases did baseball manage its response to new technologies; each time, it reacted to events, rather than shaping them. But such has not been the case with the Internet generally, and broadband more specifically.
Baseball has shown great prescience with regards to these technologies, investing enormous sums in setting up the infrastructure to exploit them and setting up protocols to divide the revenues they generate. Today one can watch or listen to any major league game with a reasonably fast Internet connection, and the MLB Web site is positioned to become the main broadcaster and official statistics bureau for the minor leagues. These are just early developments. Widespread access to broadband will completely change the way the game is watched, while altering many of its basic business structures. Among other things, at some point in the near future it will render television revenues anachronistic and irrelevant.
This is one part of the context that informs next March’s World Baseball Classic, a 16-nation tournament meant to serve as the game’s World Cup. Broadband provides a means of delivering that product, but without a market for that product it isn’t very important. That brings us to a second development to keep in mind — the changing nature of the American city.
As exurbs draw a larger and larger percentage of the population, and as cities become more and more stratified, moving towards the Bloombergian vision of a “luxury product” inhabited mainly by the very rich and very poor, they will not support the further expansion of Major League Baseball and may not support it in its present state. Places like New York, Chicago, and Houston will have enough wealthy people to whom baseball can be marketed as luxury entertainment, but that’s not true everywhere.
As is, markets like Kansas City and Tampa Bay are probably not capable of supporting healthy major league teams, nor are potential host cities like Portland or Las Vegas. Middle-class flight from urban areas would drain cities of that part of the population that has traditionally done the most to support baseball, and possibly make some presently viable cities such as Milwaukee unviable.
The World Baseball Classic is, in the broadest sense, a reaction to these social forces, a bold idea to promote baseball all around the world. Its most immediate appeal is, of course, the idea of teams playing for national pride and for the chance to show their superiority over the Americans, and this alone makes it a wonderful idea. In the long term, there might not be much better for baseball than Japan or Cuba or the Dominican Republic beating the United States in the finals. At a time when America is not particularly popular abroad, this would go a long way toward showing that baseball is of truly universal appeal, and not merely an idiosyncratic and largely incomprehensible American diversion.
Far more important than this,though,is the opportunity the World Baseball Classic provides to market baseball to audiences who may never have given it a thought before.The field of 16 includes not only baseball-mad America,Japan,the D.R., and Puerto Rico, after all. It also includes Italy, the Netherlands, and — most crucially — China.
I wouldn’t suggest that a China-Taiwan game is going to make everyone in China run to the nearest shop with fists full of cash demanding Albert Pujols jerseys, but there’s no reason to think it will do anything but heighten interest in the game. As such it will help lay the groundwork for the eventual marketing of MLB in China, especially among children who will grow up to watch and play the game.
That is the real prize: a growing audience for MLB abroad. Japanese fans now bring in significant revenue for Hideki Matsui’s Yankees and Ichiro’s Suzuki’s Mariners, but the Japanese market has barely begun to be exploited. It will be, and must be, because of the forces that are coming together to shrink MLB’s potential markets here. Baseball need not become the national game of China for tens of millions of people to become fans; given the rapid spread of broadband, MLB can deliver its product to this niche audience cheaply and without a middleman cutting in on the profits. This will only grow more lucrative as the distinction between televisions and personal computers becomes increasingly blurred and ultimately irrelevant.

There are a great many things for which one can criticize the lords of baseball — for starters, their refusal to include Montreal among the international markets they desire — but as a mechanism for promoting the game and positioning baseball to change in response to its times, the World Baseball Classic is a brilliant idea.

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