In years to come, when Bud Selig looks into his chest of baseball memories to relive the glory days of his inconsistent reign, he’ll no doubt gaze with reflective pride on the international tournament he envisioned and championed into existence. Other mementos of the past, such as any mention of his role as enabler in the largest illegal drug scandal in the game’s history, have been tossed aside, along with the polyester leisure suits that made him the center of attention on the lighted dance floors of the 1970s.
The World Baseball Classic provided yet more proof that, though the names may be unrecognizable or unpronounceable, the skill is universal, even if it comes from areas far removed from the New Jersey meadow where the rules and dimensions of the modern game were born.
U.S. fans, used to big swings and even bigger misses, were treated, if they cared, to styles of play seemingly lost in the chase for immediate gratification. Anyone wondering what the game looked like before the advent of instant offense need only tune into any contest by the final pair to be transported back to a time when bat control, smart base running and crisp defense were mandatory and well-practiced keys to victory.
But no matter the merit of the Asian, Caribbean or European style of play, the WBC will not fulfill Selig’s prediction as a true World Cup-type event until changes are made.
The biggest hurdle to clear before the games restart in 2013 is coaxing greater support from Major League owners. Selig, during an in-booth television interview, said the owners will have to put aside individual need for the greater good of the sport.
This is going to be a tough sell even for a commissioner who is basically a displaced owner. Owners and executives are rightfully concerned that an injury to a key player could deter a title shot and affect their bottom line.
This fear of lost revenue will change when the merchandising and television dollars start rolling in — which they will, as long as the series can be kept afloat.
According to bizofbaseball.com, domestic TV ratings for round one jumped 40 percent over 2006, with viewership up almost 90 percent.
But more important than U.S. ratings is how the game does overseas. ESPN reported that the five first-round games were the highest-rated non-soccer events ever broadcast on ESPN Deportes. In Asia, where Major League Baseball is trying to make a big impact, the March 13 game between Japan and Korea pulled in a 37.8 rating in Japan with even bigger numbers in Korea. The Classic also helps the exposure of foreign players, so look for teams to tap into the under-used Korean talent pool.
For all the outstanding competition and international grudge matches the Classic brings out, watching teams play each other four or five times just gets old. Reseeding teams in the second round would prevent boring repetition and make for additional compelling matchups. Who wouldn’t want to see Cuba take on the U.S. and give Castro even more column fodder? The former revolutionary leader’s op-ed piece in the Escambray was a bit rambling, but he had a point about the disparity of having three of the four top-ranked teams by the International Baseball Federation in one division.
As important as the international element is to the Classic, a huge part of its future depends on U.S. success and the participation of American athletes.
Even with the majority of talent and viewers coming from places other than the United States, as goes the U.S. so goes the Classic. America still produces the best baseball talent, and fans in all countries want to see the best compete. Just as fans in the Netherlands celebrated like it was Nieuwjaar after their club defeated the mighty Dominicans, so do fans elsewhere want to take down an even more dominant U.S. team. But for this to be the case, changes have to be made to make it more attractive to players.
Baseball is an everyday game, and stretching a nine-game tournament over three weeks doesn’t give players the necessary time to prepare for both the Classic and their upcoming Major League season. Fixing this is a two-step process. Slicing a week off the schedule will eliminate the unnecessary down time players hate, and beginning training earlier will ensure proper health and team coordination. The later will be toughest to implement.
Counting spring training, the Major League season lasts nine months, which leaves very little off time to heal wounds or eliminate the stress of a marathon season. Getting 28 player to make such a commitment will be difficult. Therefore, use fewer players. This is not Little League. Not everyone needs to play. Pick a starting nine, plus pitchers, who are going to play each game and keep the rest in reserve with their clubs in spring training. Should an injury arise, fly in a replacement.
One final suggestion: Lower ticket prices. While the price tags may not have been out of order when compared to quality seating in Boston or New York, triple-digit prices are a bit much to watch Panama take on China. While the final numbers were good in Los Angeles, mainly because of its large Korean population, TV viewers were greeted far too often with too many open seats to indicate they were tuning into an event worth watching.
And if seeing Derek Jeter cheer on Kevin Youkilis or David Wright celebrating with Shane Victorino doesn’t send you running to create your own Mastercard-inspired proclamation of financial support, nothing will.