The Baseball Desert

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bright Side Of The Road

I began a response to the comments thread below regarding the World Baseball Classic, but it started to develop into a full-blown post, so I thought I would share my random thoughts here.

Although I love the concept of the WBC, there are several key problems:
  • It is not a recognised, established worldwide sporting event. I know this seems like stating the blindingly obvious, since this is the inaugural competition, but what it means in real terms is that the desire to compete in the tournament is minimal. The football World Cup not only concerns a far greater number of countries - both in absolute terms (i.e. the number of countries in which football is played professionally) and in concrete terms (the number of teams that play in the final tournament) - but it has also been around for much longer and has become the best and most fascinating football tournament in the world.

  • It will be played just prior to the season, when players (particularly pitchers) are very careful about all-out participation in games. Players and their clubs are so wary of getting injured that no-one is going to be playing as hard as they would for their respective clubs. In fact some clubs have simply refused to let certain players compete in the Classic. There are only two things which may change the way the clubs see the WBC: time and growing repute. What the World Baseball Classic needs is time, enough time to be so established that clubs wouldn't dream of not allowing their players to participate. I'm not saying that this never happens in the football World Cup, but I'm betting that it's a rare occurrence. The football World Cup is no further removed from many professional clubs' seasons than the WBC is from the regular baseball season, yet it still brings together the best players from around the world. Worries about injury are there, but players still participate.

    The biggest obstacle here is that major league clubs have nothing to gain from the WBC. Even if the tournament is an unqualified success, it's unlikely to bring new people to the ballpark. Outside the U.S. it's a golden opportunity to promote what is, in some countries, a minority sport. However, inside the U.S. the novelty value of the tournament is limited. The lukewarm reaction can partly be attributed to a competition which is basically going to put on show players that fans already see all season long. Nobody is going to catch a glimpse of the WBC on TV and say, "Hey - this is good stuff! Maybe I'll go check out some real baseball in my local ballpark one of these days." Major league clubs have little or no interest in promoting the sport in Italy or Chinese Taipei, so for them, outside of concerns of national pride, there is almost no upside to the tournament.

  • Speaking of national pride, the rules governing who plays for what country are flexible to the point of being ridiculous. We seem to have reached the point where drinking a pint of Amstel back in 1997 will probably qualify you to play as a third baseman for the Netherlands. I fully understand why this is the case, and whilst it is important to try to involve as many well-known players as possible and get maximum exposure for the tournament, there will also need to be, at some point in time, stricter rules regarding the countries players can represent. If not, then nobody is ever going to take it seriously.
There's an interesting mini-debate up at ESPN on the subject of the WBC, and for most of the points mentioned above, I would tend to agree with what Jim Caple says:
No one said this modest little tournament will prove which country has the best team or which system of government is best or which country gets the tax revenue from A-Rod's salary. But it will be an interesting competition that will provide some heat and spark some interest. And maybe, just maybe, it grows to the point where fans would be excited enough to justify shutting down the season for a couple weeks.
For that to happen, MLB needs to promote the hell out of this inaugural tournament. Make it as exciting and representative as possible without risking players' seasons. Find a way to get Cuba to take part (and it looks like that has been done). Sell the merchandising cheap (and locally - I'd love to have a Dominican Republic cap, but no way am I paying $43 shipping for a $30 cap). Do what you have to do to make it work this time around and then make it better next time. There's no miracle recipe for something like this - it's trial and error on a global basis - but if it's done properly, it can truly become a 'Classic'.