It’s no secret that Rob Manfred, and everyone involved with Major League Baseball, want baseball to be a global sport. Well, I take that back, they want MLB to be a global sport, not so much baseball itself. Be that as it may, whether they are pushing the MLB brand as the only form of “baseball” or not, the effect is still that baseball is being brought into many foreign markets. The one vehicle which should be, and in many ways is, at the forefront of the global baseball movement is the World Baseball Classic.
World or global based events have quite the allure to them in the sports arena. The Olympics are obviously the gold standard in this regard. But they are, in every possible way, their own beast and thus outside of the scope of the discussion at hand in this article. The WBC is attempting to model itself after such ventures as football’s World Cup, tennis’ Davis Cup, or golf’s Ryder Cup to name a few worldly sporting competitions. When these events take place, the sports themselves are being pushed just as much as pride in country.
That may be one of the hardest aspects of the WBC to mete out. When I watch a game between Japan and the Dominican Republic, I know that I am getting a high quality of baseball as well as pride in country. The games take on the rowdy nature we expect from a contest where it is nation versus nation. That’s not the case, however, when I turn on MLB.tv and watch Italy versus Israel. I know that I’m watching collections of players with loose ties to those respective countries. It’s hard for me, let alone an actual Israeli or Italian, to get wrapped up in a game where they can’t actually identify the players on their national team as sharing the same nationalistic identity they do.
The other big hurdle to the success of the WBC has been the number of players who turn down the chance to play for their national team. Some of the biggest names in the sport say “no” every three years when their country comes calling. That puts a big damper on the idea of the WBC being a truly worthwhile tournament. If fans know that the majority of the United States roster consists of second, third, and fourth choices then the tournament instantly loses much of its allure.
Perhaps the above, as well as its positioning of taking place during spring training and thus suffering from lots of game restrictions, is why plenty of American fans have started to turn against the mere idea of a World Baseball Classic. There isn’t any hard data to bear this out, but every day it seems I’m reading an article from an American journalist, or a comment from an American fan, about how the WBC needs to just go away. I can’t completely fault these fans for this take, at the same time I think they are completely missing the importance of the success of the WBC.
Baseball needs to be a global sport; it should be a global sport. The WBC should be an essential cog in making baseball into a global sport. Take a country like Australia, where baseball has a tenuous foothold at best. They have the Australian Baseball League, and they draw a decent number of fans. But, it is safe to say that the ABL hasn’t set the Australian plains on fire. That’s where pulling at Australian nationalism comes into the fray in the form of the WBC. By giving Australian fans one team to root for, and making them believe that they need the Australian team to win because they represent Australia, the potential is present to draw in even more Australian fans.
Sitting in America where there are countless professional teams and leagues, it’s far too easy to scoff at the importance of the WBC. The thing is, for baseball to truly grow it needs to continue to be important outside of America. The sport has a strong foothold in certain countries, but for it to continue to grow in places like Pakistan, Israel, and Australia the game needs to be presented at both a micro and a macro level. If the WBC is shuttered then baseball will have failed on a macro level, and the path to true globalization of the sport will be even more perilous.
The WBC doesn’t get everything right; heck, at times it gets more wrong than it does right. But, for the countries where baseball needs to be cultivated and made into something more than it presently is, the WBC gets it right most of the time. Think of that the next time you deride the usefulness of the WBC. Though baseball may be America’s pastime, its true future should be as a global sport. The WBC allows that to happen, warts and all.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: Oakland A’s
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