As it turns out, the Netherlands have a national baseball team. So do Italy and South Africa.
This should come as a shock and a surprise to no one, and yet it still seems wrong, somehow. They are competing in the World Baseball Classic starting next week. Betchya didn't know.
Based on numbers of television-watching fans, baseball is one of the most popular sports in the world. It is behind only soccer, cricket, field hockey, tennis, volleyball, table tennis, and every other sport that Americans see fit only for high school girls. It seems only natural, then, that MLB, America's monopoly on baseball, should style its own world tournament loosely in the form of FIFA's World Cup - humbly calling it a "Classic" from the get go.
This is why other countries hate us. It's a good thing the Classic is set up for us to lose.
Baseball is, by far, my favorite sport to watch. I'm one of the only people I know that actually finds it constantly exciting. Even I am not very excited to watch this thing, and I'll probably root for Canada.
With that in mind, I have a few suggestions about how to actually make the World Baseball Classic worth watching.
1. Get the Pros out of it
As a die hard Red Sox fan, I appreciate that Dustin Pedroia - our star second baseman and reigning American League MVP - will be playing for the U.S. team, but I'd be happier if he didn't play.
Well, because I know my team is paying him millions upon millions of dollars to play for them and for the time being I am more interested in seeing the Red Sox back in the World Series than I am seeing the U.S. win a 3-round tournament.
What if he gets injured? That severely impacts his Pro team down the road. So, what do you say? Play, but don't play hard?
Is it better for the team to have a Pro player who's not playing up to potential because he's got millions of dollars on the line if he gets hurt, or a non-Pro player who's playing his heart out for national pride? I choose the latter.
2. Lengthen the tournament
Baseball is a game of some skill, some talent, and a LOT of random chance. In the U.S., we play a 162-game season. At the end of that lengthy season, we play a best-of-five tourney followed by TWO best-of-seven tourneys to find out who the champ is.
The World Baseball Classic is a 4-round tournament in which each team plays each other team in their pool once, maybe twice. Pools are determined by geographic proximity, and apparently by color-motif of flag, rather than any sort of outcome-based standing or ranking. I'm pretty sure that from a statistical standpoint you can argue that the WBC is essentially up to random chance.
Of course, the problem with #2 is directly related to #1. The Pros also don't want to put a lot of time into this. A few weeks at the beginning of the season is fine, but make this a long process and the likelihood of serious injury goes up and the amount of time spent away from training and playing in your MLB club goes down, which means money goes down.
Instead, let's combine #1 and #2, get the Pros out of it and make it a multi-tournament affair where countries can compete in an established best-of-something series to determine ranking before heading into the tournament. FIFA's been playing tourneys to determine rank for the World Cup for the better part of the last century and that idea appears to be fairly popular. You'd think someone would use them as a halfway decent example.
3. Play it at a different time of year
On one hand, March is good. It's at the beginning of Spring Training for the American, Japanese, and Mexican pro organizations. It's after the Caribbean World Series. There aren't that many other sports seasons that overlap with it.
On the other hand, it's in early spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It's cold. In fact, because it's cold in the North, you'll notice that most of the games are being played within roughly 5 degrees of the Tropic of Cancer with the exception of Toronto which has an indoor stadium. This significantly decreases the amount of fans, by country, that can get out and see their teams play in this thing. Fortunately, under the current system, within roughly 5 degrees of the Tropic of Cancer is where the majority of people live who care enough about their national team to actually go watch it in person, with the exception of Toronto which is comprised entirely of hockey fans.
The FIFA World Cup has historically been played sometime between May and August, to great success. Yep. It's wintry and cold in half of the world, but the other half is sunny and warm. In the case of the nations currently participating in the Classic, only South Africa and Australia would be running up against winter in the case of a Summer Classic, and to be fair, both of those countries are much geographically close to a Tropic (Capricorn) than, say, Toronto.
I can't help but believe that if you combined this with the previous two conditions that you'd be in danger of actually creating a world-tourney with a multinational following.
Maybe following this blueprint would be the death knell of the MLB. Maybe mutli-million dollar contracts to mere sportsmen negate this kind of thing from ever happening. I still can't help but feel that until you treat international competition with more seriousness than what amounts to a 2-week marketing gimmick you can't expect anybody - from players to fans - to really care.
Ironically, the current plan for the Classic - the one that the MLB came up with - is what stops the U.S. from having a decent shot at winning it, largely for the reasons elucidated above. Winter play means low commitment from American players; they're at the beginning of Spring Training when they're just getting back into shape for the season and are not playing at their best. The best American players have too much money on the line to commit to a two-week tourney where an injury could ruin their season or career, so the U.S. squad has a dedicated few Pros and a passel of minor leaguers. It should be noted, though, that many of the best players in the MLB are not American and are playing, with national pride, for their home countries.
I'll watch it, but until it's actually treated with any sort of seriousness, I'll watch it for what it is: a novelty with little-to-no meaning associated with the outcome, like the All-Star Game with even less on the line and few players of note. Sorry, Japan. It's an empty win.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
2.27.09 @ 10:33a
That's funny, man. Everyone knows baseball players don't get injured.
2.27.09 @ 10:38a
Oh, wait, also, how do you figure to get the pros out of other countries' teams. I'm sure there are Dominicans and Ecuadorians and Japanese who play for MLB who would, as in the Olympics, like to represent their home countries if given the opportunity.
The flip side would be for MLB to stop hiring international talent, or for international players to refuse MLB money. I don't see either of those happening.
2.27.09 @ 10:41a
I think the way to do it is to let the WBC be its own organization, rather than a tournament hosted by the MLB - that way you give a player a choice:
You can go play in the U.S. in the pro system there, or you can play at home for your country, because you will not have the time to do both.
That said - it's not going to happen until there's a reasonable salary cap in baseball. Who would stay home to play for their own team when they can go into the MLB and make $25mil/year?
3.2.09 @ 9:51a
No pros? Established rankings? A different time of year? And, let me add, teams actually made up of nationals from that country? You've just invented the IBAF's Baseball World Cup, which has been running for the last 70 years.
And nobody even knows it exists, because it doesn't have the top talent -- MLB and NPB. That's what pulls in interest and ratings.
3.2.09 @ 9:56a
You're right. I didn't know about that.
Wow. I wonder how *they* feel about the Classic.