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January 14, 2010

Crossing the Pond

A True World Series?

by Dan Wade

After vehemently opposing international competition, Commissioner Bud Selig seems primed to send the champions of Major League Baseball to Japan to face the champions of Nippon Professional Baseball, reviving the tradition started in the early 20th century.

The most famous American team to tour Japan arrived in Tokyo in November of 1934, loaded with talent beyond belief. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Moe Berg(whose motives for joining the team may have been more political than athletic) led a team of All-Stars across the world as a way to further the growth of baseball. These barnstorming tours were far from new, however, as A.G. Spalding led a world tour as early as 1888 to bring baseball to the world beyond the Atlantic, and the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs trekked far and wide playing each other after the 1913 season in the so-called "Tour to End All Tours" to further that same mission.

By 1934, when Ruth, et al. set off for Japan, baseball had indeed become something of an international game-not to today's level certainly, but enough that when the team showed up, there were talented players to play against, even if there weren't professionals.

Enter a scrawny 17-year-old Japanese right-hander name Eiji. Eiji Sawamura, the namesake of NPB's equivalent to the Cy Young Award, stood in against those powerful Americans and shut them down. He entered a tie game in the fourth inning, struck out nine over the next five innings, and gave up just one solo home run to either Ruth or Gehrig-reports disagree on exactly who-in a 1-0 loss. If anyone wants further proof that wins and losses are meaningless as far as pitchers are concerned, look no further than a 17-year-old against a lineup that went five deep in Hall of Famers.

If such a feat happened today, general managers from Seattle to Miami would be clamoring to sign Sawamura-and indeed Connie Mack tried to bring him to the Athletics-but in 1934, with Kenesaw Mountain Landis leading baseball's development, Sawamura's performance was a big problem. Landis was convinced that Major League Baseball was the best, purest form of the game, and any loss to a foreign power would serve only to weaken baseball.

So the tours stopped. World War II had something to do with it as well, but even after peace had returned, Landis and his successors simply refused to allow professional baseball teams to go on barnstorming tours, lest they get beat and sully the sterling reputation of Major League Baseball.

Such was the state of affairs until 1986, when the All-Star Series began under the eye of Peter Ueberroth. Still, even with the thawing of a previously icy relationship, these games were clearly an exhibition, even those that matched a single NPB team against an MLB All-Star team.

Our dramatis personae here expands to include Selig. Selig-whose policies typically lie more in line with Landis' than Ueberroth's-recently met with his counterpart from NPB, Ryozo Kato. According to a report from Nikkan Sports, Selig told Kato that not only is he interested in a Global World Series, he is interested in making it happen before his term ends after the 2012 season.

If that news caught you by surprise, you're far from the only one. It was not so very long ago that Selig was dragging his heels on the World Baseball Classic, an idea that doesn't even call into question the purported superiority of Major League Baseball. That he now seems eager to pit MLB's best against the NPB champs is a huge leap, and one that seems out of character.

But before you start booking travel packages to the Tokyo Dome, allow me to voice some concerns. They're not about the project in general, since a lot of the ground work that previously would have been problematic has been laid by the WBC, but about whether such an ambitious project will come together in a timely manner.

I'm willing to believe that Selig has seen the international success of the World Baseball Classic, which managed to yield the two highest-rated sports broadcast since 2006 in Japan. Closer to home, domestic ratings in 2009 were up 53 percent over 2006 according to ESPN, which points to a growing desire for international baseball both domestically and abroad, a desire that translates directly into revenue in Selig's eyes because, whether Landis was right or wrong to ban the international tours, MLB is still baseball's pinnacle product.

However, some of Selig's objections to the original WBC will pop back up in these negotiations, most notably the timing element, which is still arguably the biggest issue the tournament faces. As Nate Silver pointed out following the original WBC, pitchers who participated in the WBC tended not to perform as well the subsequent season, and efforts to lengthen spring training in 2009 to give them an appropriate time to prepare resulted in a World Series that extended into November. Since the proposed Global Series is a battle of champions, it can't begin any earlier than November. With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in mid-February to begin the next season, a Global Series can't start much later. Selig is going to have to sell teams on a series that not only requires a change in the MLB calendar, but also may involve being in Japan during the holiday season. Is it enough to kill the deal? Probably not, but it's not going to be a quick and easy idea to push through the Major League Baseball Players Association.

NPB's season runs loosely parallel to MLB's, making the Global Series possible, but creating a few issues in terms of location as it relates to the time of year. Assuming teams wish to take a few days off between their victory parades and gearing up for an international throwdown, the Series almost certainly wouldn't start until November, and while that's not a huge deal if the Marlins or Padres are the American participant, there are many places in this nation that are cold and snowy that time of year. If New York, Boston, Minneapolis, or Chicago were to host half the games, a snowout contingency and a plan for cold would have to be in place, as well as an agreement on what too cold to play really is. The maritime climate of most of Japan means November is warm enough to play, but fairly rainy in places like Hiroshima. If the games are held in the Tokyo Dome, it becomes a non-issue.

The last timing element is the time of day, especially as it pertains to TV viewers. Last year's Pool A matchups were some of the most interesting games the WBC had, especially when political considerations are included. Most Americans missed them, as it's hard to do much of anything for three hours starting at 4 a.m., especially when you've got to be a functional worker a few hours later. The opposite problem exists as well: if a game begins at 8 p.m. EDT, it shows at 11 a.m. JDT. More people will be awake, sure, but unless employers are fine with their charges watching online broadcasts instead of working, there's still a problem.

The second major piece that's going to slow down negotiations is the battle that's sure to ensue over TV distribution rights. Sure, ESPN sold the 2006 WBC on short notice but in contrast to the original WBC, this will be a hot property. Unlike the WBC, where TV rights were sold before final rosters were settled, networks here have a promise of two top teams likely from some of the biggest markets in the world. The Worldwide Leader will be bidding against Fox and TBS just for the domestic rights, to say nothing of the other networks interested in international distribution. Jsport and NHK are used to broadcasting NPB games and aren't going to want to give those rights up, and while it seems unlikely that Sky Sports would outbid everyone for global distribution rights, it isn't out of the question. Even if Selig and Kato agreed on everything else at this exact moment, the war for distribution alone makes a series at the end of 2010 extremely unlikely.

The other issue major issue will be the players' willingness to play in the event. I don't see this being a situation like the NFL's Pro Bowl, where players will be claiming any injury they think is plausible to avoid it, but the season is long enough as it is. No team plays fewer than 162 games, no playoff team plays fewer than 165, and no team in the Global Series is going to play fewer than 173 before the Series even begins. Imagine if this series had been in place in 2008 with the Phillies playing against the Yomiuri Giants. Cole Hammels had already set himself up to experience the Verducci Effect in 2009, and Chase Utley was playing injured and headed for off-season surgery. Would the Phillies risk another 5-10 innings on Hammels' arm or further injuries to Utley's leg because his hip was unable to take seven more games' worth of stress?

There has been reluctance among players to travel to Japan for games in the past, most notably Mark McGwire before the 1999 season. According to a New York Times' report from early 2000, he quipped, "You're telling me that we're going to fly two teams over 16 hours to play two games There's no purpose in it." Anyone who has made a flight to the Pacific Rim can tell you it's a long haul, to be sure, and Mac isn't likely to be the only one opposed to doing it. However, there's a difference between meaningless exhibition games in which McGwire's job was to do nothing more than sock some dingers, and a series that means something. But therein lies the problem: does the Global Series mean something?

There's a temptation to draw a parallel to the international soccer schedule, wherein teams understand that a packed schedule is a reward for a season's worth of success. The World Series is a domestic cup, the WBC is the World Cup, and now this Global Series is the Champions League, right? Not quite. The other two, the WBC and World Series, work fine as a parallel, but the Global Series can't be considered an equivalent to the Champions League because of the shallow competition. Winning the World Series and this Global Series aren't equivalent, and won't be unless there are more teams added (making it more difficult and, therefore, more prestigious), or unless there is a prize worth winning. More competitions are a good thing for fans, but for teams, it creates issues of prioritization and risk management.

It's not all pain and committee meetings, however. This is an incredible chance for American fans to see players they've only heard or read about, a chance for Japanese players hoping to make the transition to the United States to gain international exposure, and a chance for major-league clubs to see another style of baseball. Teams have been talking more and more about a renewed interest in pitching and defense, especially with the Rays, Rangers, and Mariners using that route to improve in recent seasons, but that style has been prevalent in NPB for many years. Exposure to alternative philosophies, especially those that have clearly worked, could help teams languishing in the current major-league climate retool faster and become competitive more quickly. Is this to say if the Yankees and Giants square off in a best-of-seven next November, then the Royals and Nationals will become instantly competitive? Of course not, but it does increase the likelihood that these teams will find an alternative way to succeed the way the A's have under Billy Beane and the Rays have under Andrew Friedman. Some teams have vision; others need to see it done.

Ultimately, the series is what the teams and players make of it-if they think it's a joke, it'll be just another week or two of baseball before the offseason starts, no better or worse than the All-Star Game festivities. If, on the other hand, both sides go after a Global Series title with near the same intensity they had for the World Series or Climax Series, then it has the potential to be not only a series of great games, but a true international spectacle.

If the players and teams are behind this plan, which they ought to be, it will be a great thing for baseball and one of Selig's crowning achievements, even if it doesn't come to fruition until after his contract ends.

Dan Wade is an intern for Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


Moe Berg?

Jan 14, 2010 10:14 AM
rating: 1

Catcher in the spy?

Jan 14, 2010 10:56 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

Well caught, it's been corrected.

Jan 14, 2010 16:31 PM

Myself personally, I don't see why the players "ought" to be behind this plan. Until a Lincecum is inclined to play in Japan as a Suzuki is to play in MLB, the two leagues just aren't comparable. We import their biggest stars, they get our Dan Johnsons. I thought I once read on this site that the NPB (what's that stand for?) was considered marginally superior to AAA ball here.

If I were the highest-paid player on a WS champ, I wouldn't want to extend the season that long for any amount of money. For just about any other starter, I'd want a huge, huge chunk of money. Such that the $$$ begin to break down for the owners.

Jan 14, 2010 10:26 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

NPB is Nippon Professional Baseball.

I played with the wording there a few times, but settled on ought for one reason above the rest: ultimately, this series is good for baseball as a sport and for MLB as a league. If the league's profile goes up, ad revenues rise, team's make more money from that and other sources and, in theory,player salaries rise as well. That may break down, but if it does, it's the fault of someone further up the chain.

The profile of NPB is rising and while I'm not sure what it's equivalent in the MLB ladder is, I am sure that there are plenty of NPB players who could make the jump without too much trouble.

Jan 14, 2010 16:42 PM

The WBC final was the best baseball game I watched all last year. Only the American team didn't take the WBC seriously. Unfortunately, that will surely be a problem with a first global World Series.

Without knowing the teams, the schedule or anything else, I'll bet $100 on the Japanese champions, because they will play with determination. We'll have to lose this thing a couple of times before American players will consider taking it seriously.

Jan 14, 2010 10:44 AM
rating: 3
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

If the WBC is any indication, one good loss is all it takes for American teams to kick it into gear. The 2009 team would have been solid, but the injury bug hit them pretty hard.

Club competitions are a different animal, which gives me some hope for the American chances. There's no question in my mind though that the talent difference between the two potential teams won't be big enough for either side to think of the competition as a cake walk and still win it.

Jan 14, 2010 16:48 PM
Dave T

Although MLB may gain television/gameday revenue from a series, it's hard to see what's in it for the MLB champ. There are no pundits arguing that a World Series title is tainted like a BCS Championship because the Yankees haven't faced the Yomiuri Giants. So the U.S. champs have everything to lose ("world champion" status, injury risk) and little to gain.

Jan 14, 2010 10:52 AM
rating: 3
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

I think the unquestioned superiority of MLB is fading, especially elsewhere in the baseball world, hastened by Japan's back-to-back WBC titles. While that is a different competition, the question is being asked, where before it was not.

It is an issue though, that the MLB team has a lot more to lose than to gain, which is why adding say, all four Series teams (AL and NL champs from MLB and the Central League and Pacific League champs from NPB)to make the title more prestigious might not be a bad idea. A goodly amount of prize money would probably suffice as well.

Jan 14, 2010 17:23 PM

I disagreed strongly with your support for the original concept, World Series champ against the Japanese champion and now you want to expand the idea to include the runners up as well? You've got to be kidding. Will this tournament end before the Super Bowl or at least before spring training for the next season?

There's no good reason, other than exploitation for monetary gain, for the MLB champion to play the champion of a league where the level of competition is not at the same level. Sure, the NPB has players who can succeed in MLB. So do many AAA and AA teams. Should we include participants from those leagues as well?

MLB includes the best players from North, South and Central America and some of the best from Asia. The NPB is mostly limited to Japanese players. With no disrespect to NPB the level of competition is not at the same level as MLB. it can't be. Please stop citing the WBC as evidence that MLB and NPB are comparable in quality of competiton. The WBC is an exhibition series that's fun to watch. But because of the limitations on pitchers and the absence of many good players because of disinterest, fear of injury or discouragement by their teams it's anything but a meaningful barometer of the caliber of play in Japan as opposed to MLB.

Jan 14, 2010 20:27 PM
rating: 3
Patrick M

Of course, if we put both NL and AL champs into the competition, we have the possibility of a fun outcome like the World Series loser finishing ahead of the World Series winner :)

The idea of some sort of series is intriguing in the abstract, but the logistics of it are very difficult, and the risk on injury (I would guess that the pitchers would see the biggest change in risk) would make this extremely difficult to implement.

Jan 15, 2010 06:53 AM
rating: 1

This is an easy fix: expand rosters to 27 players and schedule each team for 8 double headers. Everybody wins.

Jan 14, 2010 10:57 AM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

Except the owners who don't make as much money and the players who have to play more games for the same amount.

Jan 14, 2010 11:17 AM
rating: 1

There's one obvious solution to the problem of playing in cold weather in November, and it could solve a lot of the other problems too. Play the games in Hawaii. That evens out the travel for the players and fans from both countries who wish to attend. Extending play for a week might seem a lot more palatable if players could entice their families with a trip to Hawaii in November. In Japan, the city of Naha in Okinawa has a climate like Hawaii's, Japanese spring training facilities and a stadium that seats 30,000. Alternatively, neutral warm-winter or domed-stadium cities could bid for the series, just like it's done for the Super Bowl. San Diego, Miami, Tampa, LA, Las Vegas for example, even Toronto and Seattle could get in on it.

Jan 14, 2010 11:03 AM
rating: 13
Matt Kory

That's a good idea. I was thinking while I was reading the article that the series would have to be held in a warm weather city, so it would probably have to be held at a neutral site, at least which ever part of it is held in the US.

Jan 14, 2010 11:18 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

I'm sure plenty of writers would love a November trip to the islands as well!

My major objection to the neutral site idea, and I do like it generally speaking, is that makes the series more like another exhibition. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but it does increase the likelihood that one or both teams wouldn't take it seriously, which would basically turn the series into another All-Star weekend.

Jan 14, 2010 17:55 PM

Soccer tournaments are often hosted at neutral sites for the final so no need to see it as an exhibtion. I do fear that far frm being the Champions League equivalent it would turn out to be the Club World Cup - where everybody except the European Champions take it really seriously and latter see it as little more than an exhibtion.

Jan 15, 2010 13:10 PM
rating: 1
JD Sussman

Nice first piece. I enjoyed that.

Jan 14, 2010 11:23 AM
rating: 1
Matt Kory

A few points:

1. I recall after reading about Matsuzaka coming to the Red Sox that the baseball they use in Japan is smaller with bigger seams (or maybe smaller seams, my memory is hazy, but I do remember the seams were differently sized). Deciding which ball to use if indeed there really is a big difference could be an issue.

2. I'd be concerned about injuries, especially to pitchers who are already at or beyond their largest workload.

3. Speaking only for myself, I don't care at all about the WBC and I wouldn't expect to care at all about an Japan/US Series. I'd be worried about pitchers throwing another 60 innings of ball on top the 250+ innings they'd already have thrown. I'd be concerned about injuries to players who have already played 162 games and navigated through three rounds of playoffs.

I suppose money will straighten out most of those concerns, at least as far as the players go, but the last thing I would want to see is anything that would comprise the next MLB season.

Jan 14, 2010 11:26 AM
rating: 2
Matt Kory

I don't know why I numbered those 1, 2 and 3. Its really only 2 points, ball size (ha ha) and injuries. Oh well.

Jan 14, 2010 11:29 AM
rating: -1

The Nippon league actually doesn't have a standardized baseball. The home team supplies the ball of its choice within some boundaries. Some teams use MLB balls and other teams use smaller balls.

Jan 14, 2010 11:41 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Dan Wade
BP staff

This is where I think having the WBC in place is really useful. If the ball size becomes an issue, they can just fall back on the international rules. If I had to guess, I'd guess they agree on using the MLB ball, but either way, it seems likely that they'll find common ground.

As far as injury concerns go, there's not much to add. Every game a player plays is a chance to be injured. I'll leave it to Will to discuss whether or not there really are more injuries later in the season, but especially for young arms, the risk certainly seems to be real. Teams will have to way the risks and the rewards, but in order to get as many players to play as possible, organizers will have to think long and hard about making it worth their while to do so.

Jan 14, 2010 18:16 PM

Another thought would be to shorten the regular season to 154 games, possibly by adding more off days. The extra gaps would also make it easier to make up rain-outs, and they could make up for some of the revenue difference by having events like letting the Triple-A affiliates play in the big league parks.

Also like the Hawaii idea that several others have suggested.

Then, if they really want to grow the sport, they would have to figure out how to give other country-league champs a shot...

Jan 14, 2010 19:08 PM
rating: 1
Jay Taylor

Get rid of the Wildcard round and replace it with the japan series. I think it could be kind of cool.

Jan 14, 2010 12:05 PM
rating: 0

I'd suggest playing the games in Hawaii. It's central and temperate.

Late October is bad enough in some MLB cities, but imagine playing past mid-November in Cleveland. Or Denver. Some of these cities could get enough snow to close their airports. Toronto certainly could.

Jan 14, 2010 12:18 PM
rating: 0
Kyle E.

Soccer has the Club World Cup in which the winners from champions leagues of different continents play each other. It's hosted like the regular World Cup, travelling from place to place. Could be a great way to help spread the gospel of baseball, although as only the U.S. and Japan's club champions are involved, it reminds me more of a club version of the Ashes from cricket, pitting the U.K. and Australia against each other. But those are national teams.

Seems half Club World Cup, half Ashes to me, which is breaking new ground.

The Ashes don't do home and away in the same year, but one of the two countries hosts all games within a given year and the countries rotate hosting the competition. Could be a good plan to emulate as it'd cut down on the travel concerns players would voice. Host it in Japan for two years, then in the States for two years, or every other, whatever.

Jan 14, 2010 22:20 PM
rating: 0

Growing up in L.A., I remember the Dodgers going to Japan in 1966 -- I was 7, so the details are murky. I don't know who they played. But I do recall that Maury Wills refused to go so the Dodgers traded him to the Pirates -- the late, great Herald-Examiner had a cartoon of Maury leaving Japan on a Pirate ship.

Jan 15, 2010 08:47 AM
rating: 0

OK, I should have done this first -- the Dodgers went 9-8-1 against the Tokyo Giants on that tour. Wills played in four games and then claimed he'd hurt his knee and needed to go home for treatment. He instead went to Hawaii to party and that led to his trade.

Jan 15, 2010 08:54 AM
rating: 0

Great piece Dan! I agree with most of the other commentors here though in that this series wouldn't really be taken seriously by the American teams.

Jan 21, 2010 10:21 AM
rating: 0
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