With the passing of the second quadrennial World Baseball Classic, it’s once again time to crown Japan as the champions. And an exciting WBC it was! The United States shook off a poor showing four years ago, and staked a stunning come-from-behind victory against Venezuela, to proceed to the semi-finals before losing to Japan (no shame in that). And the championship game between Japan and North Korea would rival any playoff or World Series game you’ll see in October. When the two teams, whose baseball programs enjoy a pretty strong rivalry anyway, met in the championship, they had already played four times, splitting the games two apiece. It was a classic baseball contest, requiring exemplary defense, solid pitching, timely hitting, and even a tenth inning to decide. Seiichi Uchikawa made just about the best play you will ever see in the outfield. And when the passion both countries posses for baseball is coupled with the historical political tensions between the Japanese and Koreans, this game can easily be seen as more than just a mere contest of skills on the diamond; a comparison of the 1980 United States/Soviet Union Olympic hockey game would not be a specious analogy, even if the animosity isn’t quite as severe.
I was sad to see the United States lose to Japan. But I couldn’t say I was disappointed with Japan winning the championship. The intrigue of a Japan vs. South Korea game aside, I love the way the Japanese play baseball. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played; hit for average, run when you get a chance, pull the ball to right with a man on first – pretty much just a small-ball team with an emphasis on defense and pitching. I do enjoy the current makeup of the game, but American baseball has turned into hitters swinging as hard as they can at pitches thrown as hard as possible. I understand the irony of this coming from a fan of the Cubs, a team which in recent history has relied a bit too much on strikeouts and homeruns (pop quiz – when was the last year Cubs pitching did not lead the Majors in strikeouts? 2000; and they came in fifth), but I prefer the old-school style of play. Joe Morgan commented that one of the big differences between Japanese and American pitching is the Japanese trust their off-speed pitches in hitter’s counts. As a guy who always preferred Greg Maddux to Roger Clemens, those are the kind of pitchers that I enjoy watching. It’s smart baseball, not just muscle baseball. And baseball really should be more chess than wrestling.
In short, they play the game the way Ryne Sandberg says it should be played.
Certainly the tournament made me long for exuberant discussion – if only I could have found someone to discuss it with.
By all accounts, it was a smashing success; everything that Major League Baseball had hoped it would be . . . if you look at its impact internationally. For Monday night’s championship game, over 40,000 baseball fans packed into a stadium in South Korea to watch the game on the JumboTron, and almost 55,000 showed up for the actual game in LA’s Dodger Stadium. There were some anemic crowds for some contests. Less than 10,000 people showed up for the Japan vs. Cuba semifinal game last Wednesday, but that game was played in the United States, so some tepid reaction is excusable. And just a touch over 13,000 fans showed up for one game featuring the United States in Dolphin Stadium last week, but that could rival any other baseball game played in Dolphin Stadium (one reason the Florida Marlins may leave Miami).
The goal, however, was not to breed further interest in the sport at home (though I’m sure MLB wouldn’t decline the offer), but rather to garner interest across the world in an effort to make baseball a truly global sport. And the truth is it is a global sport. Of the four major sports in the United States, football and basketball don’t share near the international intrigue of baseball and hockey, though basketball has become very popular in some Mediterranean and Eastern European countries.
The problem is, while hockey’s international appeal has a direct benefit on the sport in the United States, as the lack of pronouncability on player’s jerseys will quickly prove, baseball’s appeal has relatively little economic value for Major League Baseball outside of the United States and the Caribbean. The market for players is starting to expand into Japan and Southeast Asia, and clubs are spending more than ever evaluating talent in those areas. But that is sadly being offset by a tendency of youths coming from economically challenged backgrounds in the United States, whom traditionally looked towards baseball to gain wealth, shifting focus to basketball and football instead. MLB is trying to deal with this problem through programs such as RBI, but the sad fact is the only thing keeping baseball from once again becoming a “white” sport is the influx of major league ballplayers from Central America and the increasing number of players from Japan and Southeast Asia.
I know it sounds cold to put the situation into such nondescript socio-economic and racial terms, but the truth is the best athletes tend to come from economically challenged backgrounds, and money is spent by fans where players are being produced. This is an issue that affects both the integrity and quality of the game played, as well as the economic value of the sport. So the World Baseball Classic was established, in part, to try to expand the market globally, producing an increase in both the quality of players entering the league and the markets in which Major League Baseball can financially tap into.
After only two tournaments over four years, it’s hard to tell if this will have any real impact on either of those goals. As for me, personally, even if it is a failure in that regard it would be a measure of pride that my favorite sport is increasing its global appeal.
I love the World Baseball Classic. I love what it represents for the game. I love watching other countries and nationalities compete in the sport outside of the Olympic venue. And yes, I love seeing how the Americans stack up against players from other countries. And even though there was little representation outside of North America and Asia (The Netherlands, Italy, and South Africa were the only three of the 16 not from those two continents), I honestly believe that this is going to be instrumental in spreading the popularity of the game.
But I don’t understand why this love is so seldom shared among my US brethren. I would think millions of baseball fans would jump at the chance to watch good, quality baseball games in March. (Have you seen Spring Training games?? They’re painful!)
One excuse I’ve heard for the bland response is that it competes with March Madness. This is undoubtedly true, and I don’t think you can reasonably expect it to achieve its full potential in the US during this time frame. But that doesn’t explain the complete lack of enthusiasm. If there was any excitement for it, then it would fare well right along side March Madness; they could even compliment each other. Bud Selig said he’d like to eliminate a lot of the off-days during the tournament, which would increase the number of games played on the weekdays (when the NCAA tournament is dormant) and also lessen the amount of time it has to compete against the NCAA tourney. That will help. Some suggest changing the timing, but to when? To November, so they can play baseball in the snow? To July so they can suspend the regular season for three weeks? March is the only logical time to play the WBC, and so fans are going to have to learn to multitask. It shouldn’t be asking a lot. You don’t ignore the Winter Olympics because of the NFL playoffs.
To be fair, there would probably be a lot more enthusiasm in the United States if the United States baseball team was more successful. The American team, while doing well overall, was hardly the dominating force one would expect them to be. And winning breeds enthusiasm. Without Lance Armstrong’s dominance, the Tour de France is just a bunch of people in stupid outfits riding bikes. And who actually thinks the US swimming team would have received constant national attention if it wasn’t for a certain Michael Phelps?
It is possible, of course, that the Japanese are just a better team. That “old-school” baseball really is a superior game and Japanese dominance reflects this. And it’s possible that we are overestimating the superiority of American ball players to other countries. Still, when considering the bad performance of the team in 2004 and the level of play against some countries in earlier rounds, it’s obvious the American team did not perform up to par.
There are a lot of excuses for the American team not playing as well as one would expect. I’m not sure I buy many of them, mostly because the Japanese team played so well. People say that there wasn’t enough time for players to prepare, and that the team couldn’t jell the way other teams could, or that commitments to their Major League teams kept players from being utilized appropriately or playing as hard as they otherwise would have. But there were several MLB players on most teams, and the rest of the Japanese team was comprised of top-tier professionals from a very successful major league program in Japan. There’s no reason why the Japanese could work around these problems but the Americans couldn’t. To me, it was obviously an issue of attitude.
I don’t want to take anything away from the players who decided to play. I know the players who participated in the WBC felt honored to do so, and seemed legitimately disheartened when they lost. Particularly, Derek Jeter obviously really took the tournament to heart, and I appreciate that. However, the overall reaction from Major League players and their teams to the WBC has been lukewarm, at best. Many of the game’s top players seemed to jump at the chance to wiggle out of the tournament. Look, if CC Sabathia doesn’t want to play, he shouldn’t have to. But practically nobody turns down a shot to play in the All-Star game (though I have seen some pretty lame injuries keep players out). Players should view this as another form of the All-Star game, except instead of representing your league, you’re representing your country.
Much of this attitude seems to stem from the ball clubs. They don’t want to take the risk that their players will be injured, or that the early training and stress will wear them out towards the end of the season. This is understandable, but baseball is notoriously a marathon sport, and there should be ways around this without meaningfully affecting your team’s play in September or October. And I don’t think that competing against a team in international play is any more hazardous to a player’s health than competing against another team in spring training. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’d also be inclined to believe that many ballplayers probably see this as little more than a run through minor-league all-star teams, so what’s the point? We don’t need the WBC to tell us we’re the best in the world (even though we’ve yet to prove it in that venue), so why break our backs for it?
Culture is a hard thing to change, and I’m not sure I know how to do it. My first thought would be to provide monetary incentive to teams for winning games, but that would seem to fly against the spirit of the tournament, and I’m not sure you could award financial incentives large enough for ultra-competitive multi-millionaires to use it as any more of a motivating factor than winning would otherwise be.
Bud Selig said owner’s need to realize this tournament is ultimately good for baseball, and they may have to make some sacrifices for the greater good. I think these sacrifices would actually be quite small, and agree that the ball clubs should fall in line. But I think he’s missing the point. As long as the majority of Major League Baseball continues to see the WBC as a sacrifice teams need to make, they will not have the enthusiasm for the tournament it deserves.