Tuesday, March 3, 2009

First to Third: The World Baseball Classic

Baseball wants to be a global sport, much like soccer is and it's trying hard - very hard. For the second time, baseball will be hosting the World Baseball Classic, a grand stage for America's game. The Classic is a great idea, but has several problems. First, the Classic takes place right in the middle of spring training and many teams, especially teams with pitchers involved, are holding players back, preventing them from playing for "their country." Why shouldn't teams hold their players back? It's teams with the big investment, with the most to lose.

The second problem is precisely the reason I put "their country" in quotes in the previous paragraph. Players are allowed to play for basically any country they can spell or point to on a map. In the first Classic, Mike Piazza played for Italy, although he wasn't born there and probably hasn't been there. Luckily for Piazza, he could find the boot-shaped country on a map, but his spot on the Italian roster reduced the credibility of the tournament. A-Rod played for Team USA in 2006 and will play for the Dominican Republic in 2009. You don't even see David Beckham switching sides that often. He always has time in his schedule to play for England. A player doesn't have to have any direct link to the country he chooses to play for - all he has to do is claim a great, great, great, great grandmother twice removed lived there for a week or two.

The foundation for a great tournament to showcase a great game is in place, but with star players dropping out faster every day or being prevented to play by their team and with no real way to put players on a country's team that they have a direct link to, the tournament needs a couple rule tweaks.

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Brian Doyle said...

I don't see any other time that this could take place other than Spring Training, there's no way it happens at the end of the season and it coincides perfectly with what they'd be doing anyway, playing baseball to get ready for the season.

A few things. You're spot on about how you shouldn't be able to switch teams like Alex Rodriguez, but he does have a direct link to the country that he is playing for. I don't know if he has dual citizenship (I would think he does), but his parents are Dominican, he was born in Washington Heights (which culturally is like being born down there, NYC has about the same number of Dominicans as Santo Domingo), and he did live in the DR growing up.

A few reasons why the rules, like with Piazza, are set up this way. Baseball is not as global as everyone, and MLB, likes to think it is. The fact of the matter is that there would be no Italian team if it weren't for American-born players.

This concept is actually very much like soccer, which is the most global and internationally competitive sport. Weaker nations naturalize and enlist players (typically from Brazil, like Alex who played for Japan, but there are other cases like Emanuel Olisadebe who played for Poland despite being a native of Nigeria). Even dual citizens jump ship on the country where they were born, like Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi who left to play for Italy. This happens all the time. The difference is that once you play a senior international for one country, you can't for anyone else (like A-Rod is doing). From a club perspective, players use ancestry to get passports and work permits all the time if they can, so this is really nothing new no matter which sport it is.

There are a few problems with the WBC. One is that it's not run by a world governing body, it's run by MLB (who in a sense is trying to become that body, and does a good job of it in regards to Latin American club teams). Another is from the fans perspective. Americans, in American created sports, assume that they're the best team (like with basketball too), so they don't send their best players. And if they don't win it's because they didn't send their best players. They also seem to care a lot less about international competition.

While it's a very new tournament, for it to be cared about, it's going to take professional clubs to respect it like clubs from other sports respect their international competitions, and that includes players demanding to be able to play in it. But it's America, they'll take money and personal success (both the clubs and players) over national pride. And MLB will just smile while they go over the gate from the Tokyo Dome and a Dominican/Venezuelan filled Dolphin Stadium (on that note, I can't believe they're putting Cuba in the West bracket).

Rob Burckhard said...

I'm not arguing that A-Rod isn't eligible to play for either team, I completely understand that he is, based on his heritage. As you pointed out in your second paragraph, my issue is with switching sides.

As far as Piazza playing for Italy, I know why baseball set it up that way, but unfortunately that doesn't make it right. If baseball has to live with no Italian team, so be it, there are plenty of countries out there with more legitimate ties to a player than Italy to Piazza. As a baseball fan, I would much rather watch any of the Latin American countries with their own citizens playing than a makeshift Italian team. By allowing this behavior to continue, would Ireland try to lure Mark McGwire out of retirement to man first base for them?

I would also object to your point about Americans not caring about this particular International competition. Forget the World Cup because so few people in America care about soccer in the first place compared to the rest of the world. While this is still a young event, ratings showed viewership over 1 million for some games in America alone (http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/2006_World_Baseball_Classic). Americans are also known to tune into other forms of international competition, such as the Olympics. So I think it's a stretch to make the claim that "Americans care a lot less about international competition."

Brian Doyle said...

1. Italy is in it because there's really no other team to take its place. You say you'd rather see another Latin American team in Italy's place, but there's no other team. Every Latin American baseball playing country is already in the tournament. Baseball doesn't have a choice, they need teams to fill out the pool, and Italy is one of those throw-ins (like South Africa). Plus Italy has been participating in Olympic baseball, so it makes sense for them to participate (unlike a hypothetical Irish team).

2. I also don't find a million viewers impressive for something that happens every three years (especially when the WBC was being staged for the first time and was pretty novel). That doesn't constitute very much interest in my opinion. By comparison, MLS Cup, an event that most people don't even know is taking place, had 910,000 viewers last year. Regular season Red Sox-Yankees games have drawn anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 4.2 million viewers over the last few years, and those games happen 18 or so times a year. And national pride is older than any club rivalry.

I wouldn't discount soccer (saying Americans don't care compared to the rest of the world is a pretty obvious condition). Americans do seem to care more about soccer at the international level than they do about baseball. I know far more Americans that care about, and watch, the World Cup than the WBC, and it's not even because they're soccer fans, it's just that they find the WBC to not be that interesting.

How much Americans care about soccer compared to the rest of the world is insignificant. What is significant is that they care about it more than the international baseball championship, which is astonishing since soccer is somewhere around America's 5th most popular professional sport compared to baseball, which is our most popular internationally played professional sport. ABC averaged 2.6 million viewers per game in 2006. Even the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier in February, a year and a half from the start of the finals, pulled in 1.2 million on ESPN and 10.7 million viewers overall in the United States.

Yes, Americans watch the Olympics, but I believe that the high ratings come from coverage heavy on swimming and track, not on team sports (which is why those sports are relegated to CNBC or other NBC owned channels). Some of those team sports are the ones we invented and therefore generally feel superior in, but we usually don't send our best players because those sports have become so "club first oriented." In turn people generally don't watch at an international level.

Kevin Fenstermacher said...

I'm with Doyle on this one. When it comes down to it America looks at it sports intrinsically, while the rest of the world is the reverse. That's why we consider every championship we have held in this country to be the "World Champions" of that sports.

There are many things written about the extrinsic nature of other countries in sport compared to our intrinsic values. I wish it wasn't midnight so I could get into it a little more.

Also, the labor migration that you are talking about here in regards to soccer and other sports has been something that has been done for centuries in all sports (not just soccer and baseball). Eastern European countries used to bring people in to their country and offer citizenship or what have you for weightlifters to come and compete for them.

Greece has a very competitive basketball league, but when it comes down to it the champions of that league don't compare to any victories of the national team. It's the same with the Premiership in Englad, and with many other leagues throughout the world.

And your comment about Ireland going after McGwire, although far-fetched and somewhat irrelevant, wouldn't be the first case of something along those lines happening. Baseball needs an NGB if they want something like the World Baseball Classic to thrive on an international level.