x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Homing in on the world

If the aim of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is to internationalise America's national pastime, it has already surpassed its founders's grandest dream.

China's shortstop Chang Ray with teammates during practice before the World Baseball Classic.
China's shortstop Chang Ray with teammates during practice before the World Baseball Classic.

If the aim of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is to internationalise America's national pastime, it has already surpassed its founders's grandest dream. The tournament has gone galactic. "As you look at the magnitude of what the WBC is becoming you just have to note a few things, such as an astronaut in Japan who wants to make sure he can get the Japanese games up in space," says Paul Archey, the senior vice-president of business operations for Major League Baseball (MLB).

"The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, not only announced the rosters of the Venezuelan team but weighed in on who should be on them. "Forty thousand people showed up to watch the Japan team practice in Tokyo and they sold out two exhibition games against the Australian national team. They will have played in front of 150,000 fans in four exhibition games before the tournament even starts." The Classic, which began on Thursday, was first held in 2006. It is the brainchild MLB but was opposed for several years by the Major League Baseball Players Association, powerful owners like the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner - who feared having star players injured in international play before the American season began - and by Nippon Professional Baseball and its players association in Japan.

After four months of negotiation in 2005, the Japanese league notified MLB that its players would participate the following year, and, soon after, the American players union also agreed when the MLB backed off from their demands to use Olympic-style drug testing and a deal was reached to insure player contracts in the event of injury. And so the tournament, which will be held every four years from 2013, is an arm for the continued selling of the game around the world. It began with 16 teams in the final round. Surprisingly to some in America, the semi-finals did not feature the United States.

Japan were the winners, beating Cuba 10-6 in Los Angeles. South Korea defeated the Dominican Republic, whose roster was filled with players from the American major leagues, for third place. The fact that the US did not reach the final reflected two things: that the United States ballplayers did not take the tournament as seriously as other teams; and success of the exportation of baseball to countries like Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic.

There are at least 12 books available in Japanese on Amazon.com about Japan's victory but none in English about the first international tournament of national teams featuring professional players. This is one of many signs that the often parochial American point of view has yet to fully embrace the globalisation of the game except on their own playing field and in the corporate board rooms that see the game's growth making sense because it makes dollars and cents. "We have players from 36 countries in major league organisations. Major league baseball is broadcast in more than 220 countries," Archey says.

"We felt the WBC would give the sport a platform to promote the game globally. We fielded a good team in 2006 but it's safe to say we're taking it more seriously this time. We learned what this is about and built our team differently. The first time we brought six starting pitchers when most teams only brought three. This time we're bringing only four and stronger middle relievers. "We have a pretty good event of our own in the World Series [the annual October seven-game series to crown the American baseball champion] so our owners are not interested in making it a qualifying event for the WBC. We still believe the World Series represents the best teams in the world. But we believe the WBC will become a major international event and a platform for our sport."

Craig Shipley, one of the first Australian-born players to reach the major leagues, works in international scouting and development for the Boston Red Sox, arguably one of the most progressive and successful franchises in the game. "My father used to play it and I preferred it, but in Australia kids used to say to me, 'What are you doing?'," he says. "They couldn't understand why I wasn't playing rugby or cricket.

"I played those a bit but I loved baseball. I was the only kid in my school that played baseball. It was a weekend, club type sport, but it has been in Australia for more than 100 years. Like most countries, American servicemen brought it and it caught on. We have a national team and the game is now the No 1 sport in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Curacao, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. "In quite a few countries it's the No 1 sport and in some it's the only sport. There are major league scouts going all over the world now because that's where the talent is. Baseball is now everywhere.

"I'm in the Dominican Republic right now at a field cut out of a banana grove. There are more rocks on the infield than I've ever seen but 25 kids are out there having the time of their life playing. "One reason there are so many players in the major league from Latin America is that the game is so popular there and, unlike American kids, they don't wait until someone comes and unlocks the park gate and sets up a schedule. They just want to play. The WBC is a great vehicle to make the game even bigger. I think the passion of the fans in a lot of these other countries that we saw during the WBC opened some eyes in the US to what baseball has become."

American football and basketball have made similar efforts to promote and grow their games overseas. The National Football League (NFL) plays regular seasons games in London and Toronto and also played one in Mexico City. One reason behind the closing of NFL Europe, an NFL off-shoot, was that the NFL felt it was not showing its best product overseas and limiting its efforts to expand foreign interest in the game.

Chris Parsons, the NFL's vice president of international business who oversees NFL offices in Beijing, London, Mexico City, Tokyo and Toronto, says they needed higher-quality games. "We felt if we're trying to export what we're playing in the US then NFL Europe was not our best product," he says. "We want to boost awareness of the sport around the world. We feel we're building from a position of strength. Even in the present economy we've seen growth in global markets because the game is new and exciting.

"Our overseas broadcast numbers continue to expand. We have a lot of online presence. We have a website in China with programming to teach the game because people have to understand the sport before they can become fans. "The success of the NFL has been phenomenal as a business and revenue generator, but the US can do only so much. Where there's growth opportunity is growing fans internationally. If we can capture a relatively small portion of the world market it means great growth for our sport."

The same has been true for the National Basketball Association (NBA), a leader in pushing its product on a global stage. The success of the first Olympic "Dream Team" in 1992 fuelled that growth to the point where international teams from several countries are now competitive threats to US supremacy at the Olympic Games and revenue from foreign sources for apparel, advertisements and sponsorships is mushrooming.

According to Wyc Grousbeck, the principal owner of the Boston Celtics and chairman of the NBA's planning committee, he can foresee a time in the not too distant future when the NBA takes its All-Star game outside the States rather than moving it from one NBA city to another. "The All-Star Game is a major event. Our superstars are the biggest in the world. I could see it going international," he says.

The growing success of the WBC as a major event speaks both to the success of America's efforts to export its games to a worldwide audience and puts baseball deeply into the race for international sporting dollars with the NFL and the NBA. Baseball has offices in Australia, England, Japan, China and the Dominican Republic and its office in London oversees efforts to grow the game in the Middle East and Africa as well as Europe.

"We've done some things in the Middle East," Archey said of baseball's efforts. "It's not a market we're terribly active in yet but baseball has shown a lot of growth wherever it's introduced. We see it every day. In Europe we've signed more than 30 players in the last three or four years. That used to be unheard of. "We're doing grassroots work in China. There are pockets in the Middle East where the game is being played and is growing. There's a long-term outlook to what we're doing."

One advantage baseball believes it has over American football and basketball is that anyone can play. Last season, for example, the Most Valuable Player in the American League was 5ft 9in, 180lb Dustin Pedroia. While basketball and American football have become a land of the giants, baseball remains every man's playing field. "Look at Suzuki Ichiro," Archey says of the Japanese-born player for the Seattle Mariners. "He's one of the best players in major league baseball and one of the smallest. When people in other countries look at some of our players they say 'I can be that guy if I practice hard.' If you're 5ft 9in you can't look at seven-foot Chinese basketball star Yao Ming and think 'I can be that guy'."

While the United States continues to look at the WBC as a competitive exhibition series, it became a major debate in Japan when it was suggested that a retired former manager in the Japanese league head its entry. Such was the hue and cry that eventually one of the Nippon League's top managers, Tatsunori Hara of the Yomiuri Giants, took over, leaving his regular team for five weeks in the middle of that league's spring training to direct the national team.

That would never happen in the US, which is led this year by former major league manager Davey Johnson, who has not held such a position in the US in nine years. The same is true with some of America's top players, who chose to decline participating. In many other countries, top players not considered for their national team were insulted and angry, another measuring stick both of the significance of the WBC and the growth of interest in baseball around the world.

"It's not an obligation but it's something you want to do," major league slugger David Ortiz, who will play for the Dominican Republic, says. "The Dominicans count on you in this situation. It only comes every few years. If you're [physically] right, you should go. Who knows how many more of these I'll get a chance to play in." The majority of players now see the WBC as both a major international event and a chance to allow baseball to expand deeper into the sporting lives of other countries.

"The WBC can be a force in the further internationalisation of the game, which should certainly prove to be good for everybody," says Theo Epstein, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. rborges@thenational.ae