Editor’s Column – The Globalization of Baseball

In the United States, baseball is much more than a sport. It is a tradition, passed down from generations, woven into the beautiful fabric of American society. Although the origins of America’s game are unknown, Americans cling to the unlikely belief that our great game was created by a Union soldier, Abner Doubleday, in Cooperstown, New York, back in 1839.

Over the next two centuries, baseball evolved into a national phenomenon, making stars and heroes out of household names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. Baseball became a cultural staple of the United States, and regardless of who invented it, baseball became America’s game.

But not anymore. Baseball is no longer America’s pastime, nor is it America’s game. Not because of the surge in popularity of lacrosse, or the new American love for football, but because we couldn’t keep it to ourselves.

Once America’s best kept secret, baseball has become an international phenomenon, gaining popularity in all of the world’s major continents. The globalization of what was once America’s pastime seems now to dwarf the narrow scope of Major League Baseball. And while the MLB may be the most competitive baseball league in the world, hundreds of capable and gifted athletes choose (or are forced) to play abroad in countries like Japan and Cuba.

Baseball can no longer be contained within the borders of America’s fifty states. And this March, sixteen nations will compete in cities around the globe to prove their nation’s skill in an ever-growing sport. In the first round of competition, teams will play in Mexico City, Mexico, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tokyo, Japan and Toronto, Canada.

However, while international competition is often met with intense rivalry and avid support from patriots, the World Baseball Classic seems to have been met with little enthusiasm in the United States.

There are several reasons that Americans seem uninterested in the World Baseball Classic. First, some of America’s best athletes will not be present. Among pitchers, such stars as CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Jon Lester (all top five in ERA last season) will be missing from Team USA’s lineup. Among hitters, there are also many prominent names missing from the list, and many athletes seem eager to back out due to the slightest injuries.

Also, Americans have a baseball superiority complex. And even though Japan handily defeated Cuba 10-6 in the 2006 World Baseball Classic finals long after the stars and stripes had been sent back to the land of the free and home of the brave, Americans still inexplicably believed in their own unchallenged baseball superiority.

But despite American ignorance, the World Baseball Classic is unlikely to be as lopsided as Olympic basketball, no matter who is playing. Derek Jeter and the rest of the American squad are far from favorites, and the competition will be a challenge for Team USA. However, for whatever reason, Americans seem to assume that the Classic will be analogous to Beijing 2008, where Kobe and LeBron humored Albania before going out for drinks on their three-week vacation to China. Of course, they came home adorned red, white, blue and gold.

However, the United States will encounter challenges from all over the world, including from countries that are far from the likely suspects. For example, the Netherlands will be fielding a team in this year’s classic. And while the club is headlined by a handful of Major League players, the rest come from the “Koninklijke Nederlandse honkbalbond.” The Dutch haven’t fallen in love with baseball; they in fact have renamed our great game called, “honkbal.” Their greatest rivals? Italy. Along with international competition, the Italians play in the “Federazione Italiana Baseball,” and their team will also be featured in the Classic.

Don’t be surprised if underdog teams like the Netherlands and Australia make some noise in the Classic, but the heavy favorite has to be the Dominican Republic. With stars such as Jose Reyes, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano dominating the top of their lineup, the pitching staff is anchored by Bartolo Colon and Damaso Marte. The Dominican Republic club is virtually a Major League All-Star team, and they should be favored in the tournament.

But mysteries remain with teams like Japan and Cuba. Homegrown talent in both of these nations are often unknown to Americans, because athletes remain in their native countries to play. In Cuba, athletes are forced to remain within their country’s borders, and in Japan, most athletes often choose not to leave in favor of Major League Baseball. These unknown talents will pose a threat to Team USA, and could potentially be enough to win the tournament.

The World Baseball Classic has effectively replaced baseball in the Olympics, and while Canadian shuffleboard on ice can still be rewarded with gold, baseball now has its own international competition. Baseball is no longer America’s sport; now it belongs to the world. And the World Baseball Classic provides a stage for the world to compete. As nations compete, the world will look on, and hopefully, America will too.