by Glen Hamilton
I realized the World Baseball Classic (WBC) was happening while I was getting my daughter off to school and noticed a live, televised baseball game going on in front of a chanting audience at around 7 AM local time at my home in the American Southeast. The WBC occurs every four years and is the only international baseball tournament that Major League Baseball (MLB), which organizes the competition, releases their players to play.
As usual, despite low expectations, the tournament has been viewed as a success. The crowds are big and the games have been great. There have been several surprise results and the standard of play reasonably high, with a few spring training worthy errors thrown in. More importantly, the players are enjoying the experience. This includes the United States team, who are clearly totally into it. So yet again, another group of well-paid, highly autonomous American professional athletes fail to live up to stereotype of being too arrogant to give a shit about playing for the United States. There is very little not to like about this competition. Still, despite hosting the event, the WBC has a very low profile in the US. America boasts a significant cohort of critics who smugly diminish the event.
If you can figure out how to ignore those people, it is easy to realize the WBC is great fun and has a formula that is almost impossible to screw up. Baseball is either a major part of a country’s summer that really matters, or it is very small beer. The contrast in player quality can be particularly significant, which makes surprise results like Israel defeating South Korea particularly remarkable. Because of the atypical matchups and the short duration of a competition like this, the enthusiasm among the fans and the players is particularly high.
It may sound strange, but one of the big surprises is the strong showing by the United States, the eventual champions. While several big stars passed on playing this year for the US, this only seems to have made the remaining players more committed. Cameroon, who had eight no shows in their effort to win the African Cup last February, became champions by making a similar dynamic work for them. While generally not recommended, high profile snubs from players can work. But perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of the WBC is that it is held so infrequently. Knowing that many fine players will only have one opportunity play for their country at this level lends an early jet-age sense of occasion in international sport that harkens back to the 1960s. It would all be perfect if it wasn’t so contrived. I mean, uh, we have planes now.
OK, there are some pretty serious problems with the WBC. The staggered roll out leaves a lot to be desired. Having half of the second-round qualifiers take a trans-Pacific flight to complete the competition seems more than a little crazy. Holding the tournament during MLB’s spring training makes for an awkward dynamic between the players and their clubs. And the clubs are not above pressuring players to pass on the event. This leads us to the most exasperating aspect of the WBC: the begrudging attitude of the MLB towards the event. Fans and the media sense the ambivalence of baseball’s leadership and it is reflected in their level of interest. Because of this, I frequently get the feeling the whole thing is put on for the overseas audience while the league’s traditional American fans are viewed as “above” the whole affair. A lot of this grows out of America’s odd ideas about athletes in their major professional sports playing internationally, many of which go all the back to the amateur era.
It would be great if a tournament like the WBC could take place next year. The stories of this tournament would continue and become intertwined with club baseball. But that is simply not happening. The chances of any expansion of the international baseball calendar at the highest level is virtually nil. In fact, the MLB has an open invitation to the 2020 Olympics and apparently, the ownership thinks they will be “too busy” to participate. Although it is a long flight from North America to Tokyo, any Olympic format is going to be very quick and relatively painless. Turning up one’s nose to an Olympic invitation smacks of small minded snobbery to those who don’t “get” baseball. A real indication that MLB’s efforts to grow the game are still largely rhetorical.
Although there are a lot of things to complain about in the Olympic movement, lack of global television exposure for the participants is not one of them. Even though the games would probably be shown in the US during the very early morning hours, the global audience would be huge. Possibly several times the size of last year’s epic World Series game 7 globally.
The MLB seems pretty keen to operate separately from the IOC, and create something akin to soccer’s “World Cup” with the WBC. They fail to realize that FIFA has a huge slate of international games building up to the big event that are central to its success. American baseball just isn’t willing to do the work to make that happen. Passing on 2020 is great example of an extreme lack of commitment. There is a still widely-held view in the US that the IOC hates baseball. That simply isn’t true. While the stereotype of Olympic leadership being mainly made up of failed modern pentathletes is a little closer to the truth than anyone would like to admit, that doesn’t actually hurt baseball within the movement. Much of the IOC may not “get” baseball, but they love the idea of it. The sport does very well on television. It is popular in Asia, which is where the future of the Olympic movement lies, while at the same time, the WBC nods in the direction of the US, the focus of the Olympics in the present. The WBC final garnered something like 100 million people watching it worldwide. 100 million viewers to a modern pentathlete is a little like a billion dollars to the average citizen. It is hard to get your brain around the figure, but you would do almost anything to have it.