2009 looks set to be a great year for baseball, but it could also end in the sport being dealt a considerable blow. The International Olympic Committee will decide in October which two sports should be added to the Games in 2016 and baseball’s reinstatement hangs in the balance.
Consequently, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) has taken on even more importance. Baseball fans are not only hoping that the event in March will be a great success, they are also already considering what improvements could be made for the next staging of the tournament in 2013.
Various theories about the ‘best’ way for the WBC to be changed for the better have been put forward ever since the inaugural event in 2006. For example, I have previously suggested a slight change to the structure which, in my view, would make it a better spectacle.
The latest vision for the WBC’s future has been proposed in an article at Mister-Baseball.com by freelance writer Joe Connor. His main focus is on introducing a qualifying round and restructuring the tournament so that it takes place in three distinct sections.
Increasing the number of participants
The idea for a qualifying round is based on the observation that the current sixteen team, invite-only format is far from ideal. It made sense to begin the WBC in this way, but it is certainly one part of the event that could be altered to extend the appeal of the tournament.
Connor notes that there have been “some hints” that MLB are considering extending the WBC to twenty-four teams. In fact, Paul Archey, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of international business operations, stated a year ago that the WBC steering committee “has strongly endorsed the expansion of the competition for the 2013 event”.
So it definitely looks like it will happen, but the way in which these additional eight teams are brought into the event will determine how successful the move is.
Connor argues that simply extending the tournament by another round would make it too drawn out and I would have to agree. Tacking on a qualifying stage before the first round proper would make many overlook these games while waiting for the event to really start.
The idea of staging separate qualifying tournaments in late summer/early autumn of the preceding year looks like a good one. Making the qualifying tournaments into events in their own right will give them more importance. Quite how they would be structured is open to debate, but the general idea should be taken forward.
Splitting the qualifying round away from the March event is not the only restructuring suggestion from Connor. He also proposes that the first round alone should be played in March, with the final eight teams competing in a week-long event during mid-July.
There would probably be a great deal of resistance in the States to stopping the MLB season, even for just a week. It wouldn’t bother me at all if it meant simply extending the All-Star break. Having a more pronounced halt to the regular season may actually prove to be a good thing, but change is always resisted and it would be difficult to convince many of its merits.
Bringing teams together for a short event in March and then reconvening in July could also be disruptive to the plans of other baseball nations and may cause logistical problems. Making one break in the traditional baseball season structure can be divisive enough, let alone two.
My main concern with the plan is that it could make the whole WBC competition too fragmented. The March round would undoubtedly lose some of its spark standing on its own and some would argue that if you are staging the event in this way, you may as well only have the eight-team mini-tournament and do away with the rest.
However, the plan does alleviate some of the problems caused by holding it in March (other competing sports tournaments, players in pre-season mode – although I suspect players will still opt out of the event to get some rest) and the main event in July would be something special with all baseball-loving eyes focused on one competition alone.
So perhaps it would be worth a try for 2013?
Baseball crossing boundaries
Finally, it’s also worth commenting on Connor’s ideas for an African All-Star team, plus an Eastern European All-Star team. As we’ve seen with the proposed 2012 Great Britain football team, neighbouring countries often have well-established rivalries and distinct identities that are not casually cast aside. There is a stronger argument to override these differences for a developing sport like baseball, but ultimately the plan could only go ahead if those countries were completely committed to it. It might make common sense to pool the players but, as we’ve seen with plans to build a joint football stadium for Liverpool and Everton, common sense doesn’t always prevail.
The more ideas, the better
The best thing about Joe Connor’s article is that it throws a few more ideas into the melting pot. The WBC is a great event already and it could become even better. Possibly, for the future of the game, it will have to as it may replace the Olympics as the marquee baseball tournament.
Regardless of the Olympic question, there is a place for the WBC in the baseball calendar. That will remain the case so long as baseball fans care enough to propose new ideas for the tournament.