The year 2009 will prove to be a defining moment for international baseball with 16 countries competing in the second World Baseball Classic and the 38th Baseball World Cup taking place this summer in Europe, serving as a prelude to the October vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on whether to reinstate baseball for the 2016 Games.
Baseball is out of the 2012 Games and may never return, so the World Baseball Classic may be baseball’s Olympics for good. Here’s how to make it better:
The WBC has been a 16-country, invitation-only professional-level event since inception, and while the majority of invitees are well-deserved, this concept has snubbed other countries in Europe and the Americas from even getting a chance to participate, most notably Nicaragua, where baseball is the No. 1 sport.
You can’t argue with the WBC invitations of the super powers of the sport such as the U.S., Japan, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and Korea. And you also can’t really argue with the invitations of Taiwan, Panama and Puerto Rico either, where baseball is the No. 1 sport and/or has a tremendously rich tradition. The Netherlands, with its two Caribbean island hot beds of Aruba and Curacao, would also be hard not to invite. And although hockey and soccer are the No. 1 sports respectively in Canada and Mexico, both are deserved of invitations given their long baseball history and contributions to the game.
But inviting China, Australia, Italy and South Africa over a Nicaragua and Colombia without any competition just isn’t right. Sure, you don’t need to be a marketing major to understand why MLB has pumped millions in coaching and training into 1.3 billion strong China, trying to find the Yao Ming of baseball. And you have to admire Australia for producing 80 plus MLB Minor Leaguers despite having a population of just 20 million and when its best athletes choose cricket, Australian Rules Football, rugby, golf or tennis over baseball.
You can also understand from an advertising standpoint why MLB is trying to find the Giovanni Pizzeria of Italy and is interested in turning baseball in South Africa into a mini-MLB pipeline like Australia has become. Yet future WBC’s risk losing credibility by continuing to exclude the likes of Nicaragua and Colombia, and other European countries, just because they may not have the “marketing cache.”
The WBC — while a great event — shouldn’t be any longer (a few weeks) than its current set-up, especially given it has taken place during MLB's spring training. Do eight more countries deserve the right to make the “Round of 16?” Absolutely — and perhaps even more than that. Does the main event need to be expanded beyond 16 teams? Absolutely not — a few weeks are plenty.
AN INCLUSIVE QUALIFYING PROCESS
My suggestion would be for the three teams with the worst record in the 2009 WBC (I’m guessing China, Italy, South Africa, or either Australia, Taiwan or the Netherlands) would have to earn their place in a 2013 WBC.
Why not have three quasi-continental qualifiers — one in the Americas; one in Europe; and the final one encompassing Africa, Asia and Oceania? The governing amateur bodies of each continent, in cooperation with MLB, the MLB Players Association and the International Baseball Amateur Federation, could determine the set-up of each qualifier, with six-to-eight of the historically top teams in each geographic region competing. The winner of each of these three tournaments would then land spots 14, 15 and 16 in a 2013 WBC.
Assuming a March 2013 WBC, the qualifying tournaments could be held on each continent(s) sometime from late September to early November of 2012, enabling those players competing in pro leagues in Asia or U.S. Minor League or independent leagues to have a chance to go home and participate.
Deserved countries like Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden and Britain, among others, would at least have an opportunity to compete for a WBC berth in a qualifier.
RESCHEDULE PART OF THE 2013 WBC — TO ENHANCE THE GAME’S MARKETABILITY
MLB, MLBPA and IBAF need to seriously consider rescheduling the next WBC in 2013 to maximize its true potential. Too many MLB players and front office personnel bemoan the fact that the WBC takes place in March during spring training, and they have some valid points.
Asking pitchers, in particular, who haven’t thrown competitively in several months, to all of the sudden go full speed — may not risk injury in the short-term — but there’s certainly some evidence of adverse affects in the long-term.
But worst of all, a March WBC has caused the best players not to participate and represent their country. What a shame. It’s why Ryan Dempster won’t pitch for Canada and why American stars like Joe Mauer have declined. Also missing in WBC action are the likes of Manny Ramirez (Dominican Republic), Mariano Rivera (Panama) and Hideki Matsui (Japan), among other stars.
Lastly, March isn’t favorable because it forces baseball to compete against multiple sports for fan and sponsor exposure. In the U.S. alone, the WBC in March is up against professional basketball and hockey, to say nothing about the highly-popular men’s college basketball tournament — the equivalent in popularity of the World Cup soccer tournament outside America.
Solution? Split a 2013 WBC in three parts. Part one would be the qualifying tournaments, as previously mentioned. Part two would be round one of the “Sweet 16” or main tournament, and would still take place in March during spring training as a double-elimination, four-pool format, as the 2009 WBC will, lasting only a few days. And then that would be it — for March 2013 WBC play.
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