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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.

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