A Whole New Ball Game
The World Baseball Classic, an unprecedented international tournament involving teams from sixteen nations, is looking both like an autopsy of the current state of Major League Baseball and a glimpse into an alternative future for Major League Baseball.
There's a lot to like about this competition: It gives fans a taste of real baseball weeks before opening day. Plus, it offers a new form of roots baseball, in which the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki plays for Team Japan, and Boston's David Ortiz plays for the Dominican Republic. Neverthless, before the first pitch was tossed March 3, we had to endure the passive-aggressive griping of George Steinbrenner, the canker sore who owns the New York Yankees. "It was [Commissioner Bud] Selig's idea and he wants to do it, so I suppose we're going to do it," he said. Then, in front of the Yankees spring-training complex in Florida, a passive-aggressive sign was erected that read: "The New York Yankess [yes, the sign was misspelled] did not vote to support this event. Any comments you have regarding the World Baseball Classic should be directed to either The Commissioner of Major League Baseball or The Major League Baseball Players Assoc."
Big George looked at the World Baseball Classic and saw an exercise in superfluous drivel. But Major League Baseball's aspirations for the heavily hyped tournament extend beyond The Boss's narrow perception. The official line from Selig's office is that the WBC intends to "promote grassroots development in traditional and non-traditional baseball nations. The tournament's primary objectives are to increase global interest and introduce new fans and players to the game."
But this is like saying George Lucas created Jar Jar Binks to promote multiculturalism. The WBC, in the mind of this writer, is baseball's way of coming to terms with its own identity crisis. Baseball, as we are endlessly told, is America's pastime. Yet increasingly, baseball's "America" is not from California to the New York islands but Caracas to Saipan. Baseball has undergone a profound demographic shift: The number of players born in Latin America has risen to 36 percent. Moreover, an Asian wave, led by the great Ichiro Suzuki, has had a tremendous impact. Twenty years from now, according to Sergio Rodriguez, host of ESPN Radio's Orlando Sports Caliente, more than half of all players will be from Latin America. Currently 30 percent of roster spots in the minor leagues hail from the Dominican Republic alone.
This stubbornly provincial American sport now has an international lineup of superstars. But unlike the NBA, the Major League Baseball brand is financially nonexistent as a global commodity. MLB wants to be like the NBA: synonymous with the sport itself. The World Baseball Classic is meant to deliver that new reality. Yet as it extends its hand to the world, Selig and company also want the WBC to showcase American might, assuaging fans that while the face--and language--of the game is changing, the homegrown talent reigns supreme. There is only one problem: The rest of the world didn't get the memo. In fact, the US talent pool on display this year has been exposed as dangerously shallow. As Jeff Passan wrote on Yahoo! Sports, "Don't call them Team USA anymore. They're not worthy.... this is Team U, which could stand for Underperforming or Uninspired or plain-old Ugly."
After losing to Korea earlier this week, the US team has about as much chance of winning the WBC as Trent Lott joining Three 6 Mafia. The team has floundered, despite a setup so rigged it might as well have been sponsored by Diebold. The US squad was in a bracket where it wouldn't have to play the powerhouse teams from Latin America until the later rounds. On top of this, 67 percent of the umpires are from the United States, and the team has home-field advantage throughout. This team is simply choking on its silver spoon.
But the US bellyflop is not the only story at the WBC. Like all sporting events that pit one nation against another, political posturing is part of the game. The White House Gang, through the Treasury Department, initially denied the Cuban team entry into the United States. After being internationally derided for such profound pettiness, and after the Cuban minister of sports pledged that any money received from the tournament would be donated to victims of Hurricane Katrina, the White House backed down. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan-- always good for a chuckle--said, "Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime, and that the World Baseball Classic not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe the concerns have been addressed."
Cuba's presence garnered more controversy in a recent game against Puerto Rico when a fan held up sign that read "Abajo Fidel" (Down with Fidel) behind home plate. He was quickly treated like Cindy Sheehan on Capitol Hill when Angel Iglesias, vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports, forced him to put down the sign. Iglesias, however, paid a price: He was shuttled to a nearby police station where the Puerto Rican police, according to the Associated Press, "lectured him about free speech."
The irony is thick. On ESPN, game commentary has closely resembled propaganda that would shame Castro's minions. The "worldwide leader" has incessantly referred to Cuba as the "only country here that is under a dictator." And while Cuba is called a nation "under a dictator," China has been given a political pass. Also ignored is Venezuela, whose government the United States has a nasty habit of trying to overthrow. As one observer said, "The only time politics are allowed to intrude is when the sentiment is anti-Castro."
Steinbrenner is wrong that the WBC, which concludes March 20, has served no purpose: It has shown that the center of baseball talent has moved south of the border. It has shown that the post-cold war standard of the carrot for China and the stick for Cuba still dominates sports coverage. And it has shown Bud Selig and Major League Baseball that lining players up behind their flags will not solve corporate baseball's identity crisis.
If the WBC serves as an autopsy on America's national pastime, it also shows how the sport is being reborn beyond our borders. There are the Japanese players with their designer shades, tricolor bats and frosted hair. There are the Puerto Rican fans bringing energy, music and a sense of community to the park. There are the passionate players of Cuba demonstrative and gesticulating with an almost spastic love for the game. To read ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, whom no one will confuse with Che Guevara, write, "I'm rooting for the Dominican Republic in the WBC for two reasons: (1) David Ortiz; and (2) David Ortiz" is to read the future of how the game will be consumed. The question facing the corpses running Major League Baseball is whether they have the ability to lead a baseball rebirth, or if they will retreat to their astro-turfed caves to tell tales about the good old days when the all the players spoke English and all the games would put you to sleep.