The San Francisco Giants and AT&T Park get to host the finals of the World Baseball Classic. But that doesn’t change what the WBC is: a lame makeup to Major League Baseball being unable to get it’s chops together and getting kicked out of the Olympics. It (along with softball) became the first sport removed form the Olympics since Polo in 1936.
Why did this happen? Well, there’s a multitude of reasons, but it realistically came down to one reason that would’ve been unthinkable even 30 years ago: MLB refused to find a way to send the pros.
(Quick Quiz: What Nation has the best winning percentage in the first two World Baseball Classics?)
I won’t rehash the debate of whether or not pros (ostensibly the best at what they do) should participate in the Olympics. That gets a bit like the idea of whether college athletes should be prohibited from receiving any payment (even from jobs); there’s no answer that’s really fair. But let’s face it, after the 1992 Dream Team for basketball, it’s been all about the pros. There was no going back, and for all the reasons the Olympian officials of previous generations were afraid of: the money.
But let’s be honest, it’s done wonders for basketball. The attention the Dream Team still gets is amazing. And now basketball is truly a world sport. Remember when Sarunas Marciulionis was special for being one of the only Europeans in the NBA? Nowadays, teams draft Europeans and let them continue playing there like a farm system.
So what happened, baseball? How did you let this amazing opportunity slip by? As far as I can tell, the answer comes down to two things:
• The risk of Injury. Really? Rugby, which is football without pads and breaks every 10 seconds, is getting included. There’s a point to which, as a writer, it’s way too easy to sit on the sidelines and say “Do It” like I’m egging on some mullet-headed idiot with no dreams bigger than being on YouTube. But playing a series of…what, nine games? How much of an injury risk is that, even to pitchers (who wouldn’t pitch everyday?)?
• Can’t fit it into the schedule. This is the understandable and yet most galling part. Basketball has it easy, calling itself a summer game whose season is played in the dead of winter and early spring. It’s hard to find a couple of weeks in the baseball season, right? Except, you know, the NHL decided to do just that to help their sport. And it has helped the sport immensely.
Baseball already takes practically a week off for the All-Star Break. Most sports don’t last the full 16 days of Olympic competition. The Beijing Olympics featured an 8-team round robin (seven games) followed by two round of playoffs. Nine games. Are you saying that baseball couldn’t stand to take a week-and-a-half off every four years for some real exposure worldwide with the best players?
Instead, we get the World Baseball Classic. Basically, baseball knew it was on the chopping block and instead tried to create its own World Cup. Except, you know, most of its coverage will likely be on the MLB channel, which isn’t even a easily gotten channel in the United States. And it’s a tournament that few American players seem to take seriously.
Look, I’m going to look forward to the Classic. I am. I attended games in 2006 in Arizona, watching Team USA at both Scottsdale Stadium and Bank One Ballpark. But it isn’t the same as the Olympics. It’s not the same prestige. It’s not a World Cup level event.
People who say baseball isn’t international are either not paying attention, or just stupid. Forget the U.S. Baseball is a serious sporting culture in several Asian countries, particularly Japan and Korea. It’s practically a way of life in several Latin American countries. You’re telling me that Curling and Women’s Hockey (which is essentially an excuse for the U.S. and Canada to get some variety in opponents) are more international? Sure, the WBC stretches to give teams like Italy some legitimacy, but there is a presence. Hell, it’s the one damn thing that America and Fidel Castro could agree on during the Cold War.
But this goes back to what is the real problem: baseball doesn’t seem to take the international community seriously. It’s a ‘World’ Series, right? Nope. Baseball’s rules regarding international players are almost as archaic as American immigration policies. It’s the only league that doesn’t allow international players in the draft. The July 2nd signing deadline is little more than an auction of 16-year olds, even with the new rules. And the complicated procedure to acquire players from Japan helps no one.
Baseball can learn a lot of lessons to help itself, by looking at how other leagues work. You could look at the centric nature of Major League Soccer, or the international systems in place that the NHL works with.
Instead, the level of cooperation between MLB and the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball is pathetic. It truly is.
And so, we get half-assed nods like the WBC, and baseball is as forgotten by the Olympics as the now-destroyed stadium that it last played in, in Beijing.
Next spring, anyone who is paying attention will get to see the beauty of baseball in a beauty of a ballpark. It will be majestic. But it won’t be as good as the Olympics.
Quiz Answer: South Korea, at 12-4 (.750). They edge out two-time champions Japan, who are 12-5 (.705). The U.S.? At 7-7 (.500), they rank 7th of the 16 nations who have participated.