With the second round of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) beginning today, it seems a fitting time to post some thoughts about the overall concept of this new MLB venture.
Like most international baseball fans, I think the WBC is a great idea. It’s fair to say that many in America failed to share these sentiments in the run-up to the tournament, although it looks as though some are starting to get into it now the games are under way.
Initial American indifference (or outright hostility in some cases) should not really be surprising. MLB is not merely launching a new competition, but instigating a culture change within the sport. For both players and fans alike, there is little tradition of international play in baseball at the Major League level. This is predominantly a consequence of the way the sport has developed. Baseball, like most North American sports, has become an immensely successful, entertaining and lucrative business without having to stretch far beyond their borders. Baseball is America’s national past time, and therefore playing, watching, or simply enjoying the game can be seen as a patriotic act. In some respects, America has created something which gives them all they need without having to rely on involvement from anyone else.
However, like every other part of the entertainment industry, Baseball has to move with the times. Reaching out to as wide an audience as possible is essential in the Twenty First Century, where competition for attention (and disposable income) has never been so fierce. The way baseball has taken hold in countries such as Japan, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico shows what is possible. And of course, the impact of baseball in these countries has also been greatly beneficial for the game in America. MLB would be a much poorer place without the likes of Ichiro, Albert Pujols, Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran.
To truly reach out to a wider audience, a tournament like the WBC is essential. The key to getting people hooked to a sport is by making them become emotionally involved with the event. Nothing can beat the lure of supporting your national team in this regard. Having a short (but important) tournament will also make the sport more accessible to new fans. The structure of the event is familiar to all due to established events like “FIFA’s Soccer World Cup”, as ESPN commentators like saying! Part of the appeal of the MLB season is that it is a real marathon. 162 games. Playing virtually every day. These are some of the factors that make the league so enthralling. However, they can also be a slight hindrance when it comes to immediately grabbing the attention of potential newcomers. MLB is such a colossal event that it can be a bit intimidating. The WBC will provide a condensed version of all the highs and lows, heroes and villains, great plays and errors, that the MLB season brings.
This is the inaugural holding of the tournament, and it is rightly accepted by all involved that mistakes will be (and have been) made this time around. You cannot expect to create the perfect event at the first attempt. I’m sure MLB will assess the WBC when it is over and decide how it can be improved upon next time around. One of the big issues surrounding the WBC is the timing of it. Holding the WBC during Spring Training has irked many people for genuine reasons (fear of injury, changing established preparation patterns for the season ahead) and the less-genuine (i.e. George Steinbrenner’s apparent belief that it is more important for a few thousand people to see Jeter, A-Rod and Damon taking at-bats in meaningless exhibition games than playing in an international tournament).
However, Spring Training is the best time for the event to have maximum impact. Every year, many people around the world who have never watched a game of baseball decide to take a look during the World Series. In Britain, it is the only time of the year when newspapers cover baseball to any degree. The problem is, no sooner have potential new recruits been captured by the game, then the series is over. When April rolls around, how many of these casual spectators tune in again? Most have probably been lost once the initial enthusiasm has worn off. By playing the WBC during Spring Training it gives MLB the best chance to capitalise on the momentum of the tournament.
Having a tournament such as the WBC is a good idea in itself. When you consider that Baseball’s place in the Olympics is severely under threat (sadly for all of us Brits in 2012), it is more essential than ever for MLB to create their own marque international event. Football has showed how successful this can be and that the Olympic version can pale into relative insignificance (I honestly don’t have a clue who won the Olympic Football tournament in 2004!). Just as with the World Cup, it will take time for the event to bed-in and gain importance and credibility amongst both supporters and players alike.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, some Americans are already changing their minds about the tournament (not that they were all against I may add). There have even been some whisperings that some of the high profile players who pulled out are now realising that they are missing out on a unique experience. When the WBC returns in 3 years time (and then every 4 years after that) hopefully more players and spectators will be excited about the event and keen to be a part of it.
Whether it’s a gripping novel, a new band, or a sport; if you have a passion for something then the natural human instinct is to share it with others. I’m sure most British baseball fans have tried to get friends and families involved. Often you end up being frustrated and saying to yourself; “if only they would just give it a go”! Hopefully in the future the WBC can provide a way in for new fans, and that they get as much enjoyment out of the sport as we do.
And despite the long-term objectives of the WBC, all baseball fans can still enjoy this years tournament. Tonight we have Japan facing off against the U.S along with Cuba against Venezuela, Puerto Rico against the Dominican Republic, and Mexico against Korea. Not all of the stars are playing, but many will be there. And you can tell from the games so far that this tournament is really starting to mean something to the players involved. Of course some will have one eye on the upcoming MLB season (and playing for the organisations who pay their wages), but they are far from treating this as a mere exhibition event.
Not all of the ideas that come out of Bud Selig’s office have merit. But the WBC deserves the support of everyone who loves baseball, and especially us “International” fans.