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.”