Saturday, March 7, 2009

Why the World Baseball Classic is a Good Idea, and a thought on the timing

To understand why the World Baseball Classic is a good idea, we first need to take a look at what happens when you have a sport that is 'global' in that it is played and enjoyed by people an an international, multi-continent spectrum.

Think for a minute, if you will, of team sports with pronounced global appeal and international athletes playing for the top leagues.

Let's use soccer and hockey as examples here.

Soccer, football, or whatever you'd like to call it, is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world. That it's not very popular in the United States doesn't seem as odd when you consider that the sport has not done too well in former English colonies, although in the United States and Australia this is currently changing.

Soccer's top leagues, like the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, all draw from an international pool of talent (even MLS is in on this), and then every so often, there is a significant international competition as well. There's not just the World Cup every for years, but also tournaments like the European championship (the Euro), which seemed to shock a bunch of people over at ESPN when (other) people watched the tournament this past summer. The World Cup, however, is the ultimate tournament, perhaps even bigger than the Olympics.

Hockey presents a more nuanced version of this: the elite league is the NHL, which draws large numbers of players from Canada and Eastern Europe. On the amateur level, the World Juniors are well established and often a focus for hockey fans, as they like to gander at their prospects. At the NHL level, the league takes a break for two weeks during the Winter Olympics to allow its players to play for their countries. While the system isn't perfect, it does allow players to experience both elite league play as well as national play.

Why am I bring up soccer and hockey on a baseball blog?

Both sports have managed to combine global tournaments with league play, and both have managed to pull it off in a format immensley popular with fans (as far as I know, anyway).

It seems a long time coming for Major League Baseball, where many players hail from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Japan, and have been doing so for quite some time. While it may seem odd to us Americans that the sport, quintessentially American, is so popular elsewhere, that shouldn't matter. What matters is that it is popular, and Major League Baseball, seeing the opportunity to use its star power, if you will, to foster an international competition, has done the right thing.

The benefits from international competition, where those playing are not amateurs with whom most are unfamiliar, are immense.

Aside from the obvious revenue (one of my friends made the comment today that the Rogers Centre in Toronto looked far more crowded than for any Jays/Yankees game), the publicity could be well worth it. If one steps outside the United States for a moment, and looks at the game from another perspective, it's easy to see its appeal.

For example, a country like Japan will routinely lose it's best players (and sometimes the not-so-best, yes, I'm looking at you, Kei Igawa) to the Major Leagues, which keeps fans in Japan from being able to see them, either live or on a non-premium television channel. Granted, streaming internet may render this a moot point, but with the World Baseball Classic being a truly global tournament, fans can once again have an opportunity to see their favorite athletes.

The one major problem with the Classic is the timing.

The issue here is that there really is no decent time to have the Classic. The season is so long that you can't pause it without risking a World Series bleed over into November (actually, that might already happen even though the regular season starts on April 6). I don't know about you, but the idea of potentially going to a November baseball game in Boston, New York, Chicago or in Minnesota's open air stadium (ETA 2010) not terribly appealing.

Playing the tournament in November doesn't offer any better of a solution, as some players will have been done with playing since the end of September if their teams don't make the playoffs, and the time required to get ready again would be an unfair commitment.

Spring Training seems like the best option, but it also means that players risk injury before the season starts and teams can't bond in the way they normally would over Spring Training as many teams miss a number of their starters.

The best solution I can think of is that, perhaps, those playing in the WBC start in camp for their WBC teams a few weeks (not too many, perhaps, but a couple) earlier than the official start of Spring Training, and the WBC is held in February instead of March, so the players of countries eliminated early can join their Major League teams earlier and not have to leave them. What's more, if a player does happen to get hurt, they will still have much of March to recover, which means less time missed during the regular season.

Of course, the major caveat here is that the quality of play might not be the same, as players would have less time to get ready, but it's not unheard of for players to show up to camp early, anyway.

There is likely a decent reason why the WBC isn't done like this, so take what you read here with a grain of salt.

Still, the important thing to remember is this: baseball, whether you want it to be or not, is a global sport. Major League baseball has come up with a way to capitalize on the globalization in a way that those living outside the United States and Canada can enjoy on a regular basis. The league has made a lot of mistakes in recent years. This isn't one of them.


  1. What about October?

    The downside is obvious--players on playoff teams wouldn't be able to go. But as long as winning the world series carries more prestige than winning the WBC (read: always), that is an easy choice to make for the players. If you have the WBC teams able to add people to their rosters come the second round, you can add people from teams that get bounced from the playoffs. In the end, only players from the two World Series teams would be entirely excluded.

    I think the NFL is doing something like this starting next year for the Pro Bowl--no one ever watched it because it was after the Super Bowl so now they are making it the week before. Not sure how it works with Pro-Bowlers on the Super Bowl teams

  2. Well, I love the WBC. I know many Americans tend to hate it because probably the time that it is played (During Spring Training) and some players are not ready to play those kind of tournaments. Even though as a proud Dominican-American and a die hard yanks fan, I enjoy watching all the other countries playing ball and that it can bring a playoff atmosphere, I could be wrong for some people but that is just my opinion. I do get a bit concerned with some Yankees on it like Jeter (USA), Cervelli (ITA), Cano and Marte (DOM). But it does not bother me as much. All I can do is just yell: PLAY BALL!!!

  3. I'm not too keen on the timing myself. I wish they would have done it back in December, when the luster of the World Series was just kind of wearing off, and I knew I had several more months to go until Spring Training even started. I think the WBC is a great idea, but we (Seattle) are missing some key elements to our team in ST right now, so it is my current opinion that the timing is horrible.
    Randomly, I think it's awesome that Team Netherlands is doing so well (as of 3/11, anyway); it's great to see a team that a lot of people had pegged as not doing very well. I was rooting for the DR initially, but 'twas not to be. :/