Interest in the World Baseball Classic will surely ramp up once the U.S. begins main-tournament play on Friday against Mexico. To be sure, the U.S. boasts perhaps the most talented roster of all and is thus on the short-short list of favorites. It's my country, and I'll be pulling for the U.S. But the World Baseball Classic and the most far-reaching implications of the WBC aren't about America.
Really, it's about Pool A. That opening-round fray includes Japan, Cuba, China and Brazil. In a very real sense, therein lies the global future of our sport.
Take Japan, for instance. The Japanese Central and Pacific Leagues are already reliable sources of major-league talent, and in Japan baseball is of such cultural centrality that not even American enthusiasms for the sport can compare. Japan has won the first two WBCs, and should it continue proving its mettle against the U.S., then more and more players will surely entertain thoughts of playing in the States.
Changes to the maligned posting system, which limits the freedoms of Japanese players and drastically increases the monetary cost of procuring them, are already being discussed, and these little tastes of U.S. baseball (which the WBC will again provide, should Japan make the championship round) add to the groundswell. That groundswell is the desire of Japanese professionals to play against the very best and avail themselves of the greater riches that the U.S. major leagues promise. So consider the WBC a mutual audition between Japanese players and U.S. teams and fans.
Now consider Cuba. The world's top-ranked team is a deep source of pride on the island nation. Because of the oppressive regime in place, Cuban players make their way to the U.S. only by defecting at great personal hazard. That's not likely to change for some time, but the prospect of the end of the Castro brothers' rule in tandem with a thaw in U.S. relations suggest that change it will. While such an evolution will have consequences far more important than baseball, it will eventually be easier for Cuban ballplayers to play in the U.S. The more the Cuban players glimpse life (and baseball) in America and the more that American fans glimpse the superlative talents of the Cuban players, the more incentive for change there will be. Just as the WBC experience may rouse more Japanese players to assail the posting system, it may rouse Cuban ballplayers to agitate for more basic liberties, of which they have been deprived for far too long.
Finally, there are China and Brazil. Insofar as baseball is concerned, these are fledgling nations. However, China and Brazil are the most and fifth-most populous nations on earth, and each country is home to a sports-obsessed people.
In the last WBC, China notched its first victory in a politics-tinged elimination win over Taipei, and baseball's roots in China date to the 19th century. However, baseball, because of its Western origins, was a casualty of the Cultural Revolution (like, well, pretty much everything else of Western origins). In post-Mao, globalist China, though, baseball has resurged. In 2002, China launched its first professional baseball league, MLB is now investing in China's baseball infrastructure, and a privately backed youth baseball association is in place. China, of course, places great importance on athletic success, and a respectable showing in the WBC (to say nothing of survival beyond the opening round) would surely resonate, particularly now that the sport has a beachhead.
As for the upstarts from Brazil, at 0-2 they're probably not long for the tournament, but they've already defied the odds. As for the requisite zeal, let's just say it seems to be in place:
Brazil's qualifying-round triumph, which earned it a berth in the main tournament for the first time, was a tremendous moment for baseball in a soccer-drenched country. So was Hall of Famer Barry Larkin's decision to manage the team. So was MLB's decision to partner with the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation. So is the presence of a strong, baseball-crazed Japanese demographic in Brazil, and so is the increasing trickle of Brazilian prospects into the game. It's growing there, too, our game of baseball.
If I were a scout, and China and Brazil were minor leaguers, I'd characterize them as "raw but with impressive upside." That's why it's important for baseball to become more of a touchstone in those countries. A larger talent pool from which to choose players yields a better game for us to enjoy. And that's what this is about. It's not about overseas merchandise sales or MLB.tv subscriptions. It's about attracting the world's best athletes to baseball.
So don't let appearances of stateside apathy fool you: Despite the unwieldy scheduling and despite MLB teams' understandable "policy of discouragement" when it comes to allowing their players to take part, the World Baseball Classic matters. It matters to entrenched powers like Japan and Cuba who have designs on the championship and invested pride in the outcome, and it matters to countries like China and Brazil, who, when it comes to baseball, are still on the "grinder's wheel." It also matters to the U.S. major leagues.
To put a finer point on it, the WBC matters acutely to the future of the U.S. major leagues.
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