March 3, 2006
At first I thought it was because anything that makes George Steinbrenner unhappy has got to be a good thing. Then I thought it might be because the International Olympic Committee--a body that has often wrapped itself in anything but glory--dismissed baseball and this seemed like a great way to one-up them. But no, it goes way beyond either of those things.
I'm not a gusher by nature--at least not in print. I'm not an ink gusher--or whatever substance it takes to print what you're reading online right now. Normally, I dose things with big dollops of skepticism, cynicism and analyticism. Today, though, I'm going to set all of that aside and gush. Here goes:
I think the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is the living end.
Or, at least, it will become so someday.
Yes, there are problems with it and some legitimate concerns about various aspects of the event such as its timing and the rather liberal eligibility rules. (Apparently, if you can prove you had relations with a woman from a given country, you can play for that team.) This will all be worked out over time. To expect this event to spring forth in a spray of perfection is too much to ask. Let's celebrate what is good about it rather than its early missteps.
We can look at the empty seats at last night's Chinese Taipei-Korea game and get all schadenfreudey about it being a failure out of the gate or we can understand that we are present at the creation of something that could someday take its place among the planet's most-celebrated sporting events. You know that the first Super Bowl did not sell out. You understand that the very first World Cup drew only 13 nations, with the majority coming from the continent of the host nation, Uruguay. In fact, the first four World Cups were fraught with all sorts of political tomfoolery and no-shows, not to mention a 12-year gap created by World War II. Look at it now.
The WBC is a further step in the long, slow process of internationalizing the sport begun informally by ex-pat Americans after the Civil War and continuing with the famous world tour of 1888-89. As we are constantly reminded, the game has not taken hold the way soccer or even basketball has, but it is making progress, albeit at a glacial pace. The WBC is a signpost--though an important one--on the road to global acceptance.
I want the world to embrace baseball the way it has done with soccer. That it hasn't to this point is something I take personally for some reason, probably because I've invested so much of my time enjoying it and don't understand why everyone doesn't love it the way I do. I wish all countries, including our own, were as mad about the game as they are in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. I'm hoping the WBC can move the needle in that direction--opening night jitters and all.
When discussing major league baseball, we spend a lot of time on payroll size. Is population the equivalent of this discussion when it comes to the international game? No. Cultural imperative is far more important, as we see by the placement of the Dominican Republic below. Still, though, it's interesting to see how the competing countries rank population-wise:
1.3 billion: China (1) 295.4: United States (3) 127.4: Japan (10) 106.4: Mexico (11) 58.1: Italy (23) 48.6: Republic of Korea (24) 44.3: South Africa (27) 32.8: Canada (35) 25.3: Venezuela (45) 22.9: Chinese Taipei (48) 20.1: Australia (52) 16.6: Netherlands (59), includes Antilles 11.3: Cuba (72) 9.0: Dominican Republic (84) 3.9: Puerto Rico (125) 3.1: Panama (131)Population in millions. Overall rank in parentheses out of 227 nations listed by U.S. Census Bureau International Database.
Fully one-third of the world's population is represented by the nations in the WBC, although this is propped up considerably by the presence of China in the mix. Taking out their significant contribution, it's more like 16 percent. (Imagine the possibilities, though, if China takes to the game the way Taiwan/Taipei has. It will take several generations to have an impact, but it would make major league baseball a very different-looking place in 2040.)
Of the 16 nations participating in the World Baseball Classic, seven have also qualified for the World Cup to be played in Germany this summer. They are the United States, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Republic of Korea, Australia and the Netherlands. For the more populated nations, this diversification of sporting resources is not as impressive as it is for the less-densely peopled places. If you had to single out one country that spreads itself pretty thin athletically it would have to be Australia. While the Netherlands has fewer people, Australia has its hand in more team sports. In addition to fielding a national soccer team that managed to make it to the World Cup in spite of having to come through South America to do so, they also compete in cricket and rugby at high levels. They also expend a great deal of team sport capital on their own homegrown sport of Australian Football.
Skroo Upps (Skroo Upps is a copyrighted feature of this author)
In my column of February 21 I mistakenly wrote that 52 was the single-season home run record for the years 1961-70. Now I come to find out that a couple of fellows by the name of Maris and Mantle bettered that. You learn something new every day.
In my column of February 24, I mistakenly said that figure skating is not a sport and hundreds of you wrote in to correct me. No, just kidding. Every letter I received save one (you know who you are) agreed that it is ill-conceived to call figure skating a sport. I do admit that my definition of what constitutes a sport deserves a lengthier treatment than the brief rant I gave it in that column, however.