Putting the World in World Baseball Classic

The American performance in the World Baseball Classic has come as a surprise to nearly everyone. Wasn’t this the team favored to win the tournament? Weren’t these American All Stars, the top of the game playing America’s Pastime, supposed to show the rest of the World how classic baseball is to the United States?

Well, sure, but don’t sound the alarm yet. In my opinion, Team USA’s struggles in the WBC vindicate the tournament. Baseball is a worldly game, and as an All Star-laden Team USA plays on equal footing with the rest of the field, the games are showing that the World really belongs in the World Baseball Classic.

Not just an American pastime

Baseball is considered the quintessential American game. Along with apple pie and the Fourth of July, nothing is more evocative of America than a game of baseball played in a park on a sunny summer day. Yet, in our association with baseball, Americans often forget (or don’t know) that baseball has a history in other countries that stretches back nearly as long as it does here.

In the Caribbean and Latin American nations, baseball has been around since the middle of the 19th century. Cubans have been playing baseball since 1864 or nearly as long as Americans have. While the Major Leagues may be the oldest established professional baseball association, America was never the only place where baseball has been played.

Across the Pacific, the Japanese have played baseball for just as long as well. Some stories have baseball originating in Japan in 1872 thanks to an American sailor who brought the game with him on a visit. Other sources say the precursor to what we know of as baseball arrived in Japan in 1820. Similarly, baseball arrived in Korea in the mid-1800s and in Taiwan at the end of the 19th century.

While Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have become established talent pools for Major League Baseball with the past decade and a half, people on the western shores of the Pacific have been playing America’s pastime long enough for it to be Korea’s or Japan’s pastime as well.

In the Caribbean and Latin American nations, baseball’s popularity far surpasses that of the American version of the game. The Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Cubans, and the Venezuelans live and breathe baseball. Major League Baseball has the World Series in name only. Baseball truly is an international phenomenon.

The Worldly Reach of the World Baseball Classic

In considering baseball’s rich international history, it is interesting to see how little Americans know about the global reach of the game. For many, baseball is America co-opted by the Japanese and brought back here in such timely classics as Mr. Baseball. We tend to view the game as something borrowed by foreign countries without realizing that these foreign countries have developed and contributed to the game just as much as Americans have.

At the same time, fans in foreign countries view American baseball traditions as neglectful of international traditions. As Bobby Valentine demonstrated in challenging the White Sox to a truly global World Series last November, fans in other parts of the world scoff at the term World Series. America’s championship series isn’t a World Series, they argue. It involves teams from just one country.

From this conflict arises the reason for the World Baseball Classic. The brainchild of Bud Selig, a divisive figure among the baseball literati, the WBC is supposed to promote baseball as an international game. Ostensibly a marketing campaign for Major League Baseball, it serves as an outreach tool for Americans and an educational tool for everyone else. The World is showing American fans that they can not only play baseball but beat the Americans at what we consider to be our own game.

Viewing the WBC through this prism, the tournament so far can be seen as an unqualified success. The games have been so popular that ESPN has dumped programming to fit more of the WBC games on TV, and it is only because March Madness lingers on the horizon that every tournament game isn’t available on ESPN or ESPN2. (This is a point of conflict for the tournament. In the future, the WBC organizers should schedule it so that it avoids the crush of the NCAA tournaments.)

The games themselves contain all of the drama of October baseball. Last night’s Dominican/Venezuela contest came down to the very last pitch in the 9th inning. Venezuela had the tying and go-ahead runs on base in an elimination game. The last American victory came with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. The pitching in the second round has been stellar and the hits timely.

When we add the patriotic dimensions, we see players celebrating as though they’ve just won the World Series. The Dominican team ran onto the field to celebrate a World championship last night after downing Venezuela, one of their regional rivals. The fans show an outpouring of national pride and the players do too. The World Baseball Classic is truly Worldly in its appeal and in its outcomes. But what of America?

The American Baseball Conundrum

While we’ve seen Puerto Rican fans go nuts in the stands, Cuban fans become embroiled in deep-seated political tensions, and Dominican fans showing their undying love for Big Papi, Albert Pujols and others, in America, the outpouring of support has been more like a trickle. Americans seem to be the least enthusiastic of all supporters. While Jim Caple tried to rally the troops today, American support for Team USA has been lukewarm at best.

As best as I can tell, Americans were expecting this tournament to be boring. They expected to trample the competition, and watching Team USA – a team made up of not quite the best players in the country – struggle has turned many people off from the team. While Americans may watch the Dominican Republic and Cuba battle it out in the semifinals, we can’t get too excited by Al Leiter and Randy Winn playing the Canadians.

The twist to the tale is that American disinterest in the event is not a bad thing. The World Baseball Classic was meant to be an international event. As long as people are watching the other games, the tournament is a success.

Furthermore, the problem of American disinterest may fix itself before the next WBC in a few years. Already big names are expressing their regret at dropping out, and Barry Bonds has even said he may play in the next round. I would be that in 2009, many fewer players will opt out of the tournament. Those that do will have legitimate excuses.

So as the tournament enters its final week, Bud Selig has a legitimate success on his hands, and the World Baseball Classic has proven to be better than I or anyone else thought it would be. If Major League Baseball can turn the success of the WBC into a greater international appeal for baseball, the level of play in the Major Leagues could see a huge influx of talent for overseas markets. While it is much to early to proclaim this victory, the World Baseball Classic could go a long way toward putting the World in Major League Baseball and putting the World into the World Series.

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