MLB has just announced some details relating to the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The news is somewhat bittersweet for British fans.
The British Baseball Federation (BBF) had hoped that Team GB’s silver medal in the recent European Baseball Championships would help them secure the second European spot in the WBC alongside the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the organizers have decided to stick with the 2006 lineup and therefore Italy will be taking part again instead.
Obviously it’s a blow for British baseball as an appearance in the Classic would have been a great publicity tool for the sport over here, but in fairness the Italians do have a decent case for keeping their spot. While the Dutch have undoubtedly been the European baseball powerhouse for many years (winning the last five European Championship tournaments), Italy also have a long history of doing well in the competition, winning it eight times and being the runner-up on another fifteen occasions. Great Britain’s success in 2007 was a surprise ( a very welcome one, mind you) and although the BBF were right to try and stake a claim to be considered the second-best European team, Italy’s track record makes for a convincing argument in their favour.
There is hope for the future though, as MLB.com reports that the 2013 tournament may expand from the current sixteen teams to twenty-four. This will involve adding in qualifying rounds before the tournament proper, possibly giving teams like Britain the chance to earn their place at the main table, rather than succumbing to the whims of the people dishing out the invitations.
From a general international baseball fan viewpoint, the rest of the announcement is great news. There is a real sense that people within the sport are embracing the concept of the WBC and are intent on building on the successful inaugural competition and making it a fixture in the baseball schedule for many years to come. Although many specific details will be announced at a later date, they have confirmed that the tournament will once again be held in March. Major League teams will naturally have concerns about their pre-season preparations being affected, but some disruption is inevitable whenever you decide to stage it. I’m convinced that if the WBC is going to successfully sell baseball to new audiences, it has to be held in March. It’s one thing getting people to take notice; getting people hooked is the key to future growth. With the Major League season beginning a few weeks after the end of the WBC, baseball has the perfect opportunity to capitalize on any new interest. If you hold the tournament in November, you lose that impact and also probably increase the risk of injury and non-participation by the top players. So sticking with March is the way to go and I’m glad that’s what they have decided to do.
After the impression the WBC made in 2006, spring training in 2007 seemed like a bit of a disappointment and I guess it will be the same this year. The passion and excitement created by an international tournament is hard to beat and the fact that the games meant so much to the competitors was a key reason why it went so well (and made the meaningless pre-season friendlies seem dull in comparison).
Next year’s tournament promises to be even better than the ’06 version and baseball fans will be in for a treat if that’s the case.