Was June the greatest month of sport ever? The NBA and NHL play-offs came to a head, big Phil blew yet another major golf championship, Nadal brought the historic Federer grand slam bid to an end, the 100m world record was marginally bettered, and, most importantly, the baseball season is starting to get interesting. Oh, and did I mention the greatest sporting event of them all is taking place? Yes - the FIFA soccer World Cup!
Marc will probably kill me for writing about soccer on what is supposed to be a sabermetrically leaning baseball blog. Although there is hardly a whiff of a statistic in this article, I do talk a lot about baseball, and what I have to say is definitely "Beyond the Boxscore".
Are you still smarting from my opening paragraph where I proclaimed that the World Cup IS the greatest global sporting event? There is no argument - I can't even think of a sport that is a close second. Sure the Olympics is massive, but the World Cup is bigger, and who cares about athletics (which, let's face it, is the dominant Olympic discipline) in the Olympian off-years? The Superbowl? Come on! The World Cup makes the NFL season finale look like a village fete. Any others? I don't think so.
The statistics speak from themselves: over 200 nations attempted to qualify for the tournament and the global TV audience will probably breach three billion. That is a lot of people and what's more they are all soccer crazy. Take a journey to the streets of Accra, in Ghana, where people file into petrol station forecourts to watch the matches on black and white televisions. Or to the Favelas of Rio, where multiple generations of extended family crowd round a single television to cheer the mighty Brazil.
But what is interesting is that 2006 was also the year that saw the inaugural World Baseball Classic (WBC). At the time there was plenty of discussion as to whether it was good for baseball, what with the busy domestic schedule and the propensity for players to pick up unnecessary niggles. The debate is still raging, but as I was watching the World Cup I started to ponder some of the things that MLB needs to do to in order to for Baseball to launch itself in to the sporting stratosphere.
First, take a moment and imagine. Imagine what it would be like if WBC X (ten) has the same global coverage as the 2006 World Cup! Imagine the scenes in Cuba if they topple the USA in the final. Imagine how North Korea will feel if it wins a blowout against its Southern neighbor. Imagine half the world's population watching the final on TV and gasping as Pujols jnr scorches a 3-2 pitch deep over the left field wall for a come-from-behind walk-off win. Imagine the President declaring a national holiday if the USA took the trophy (by the way, that is what British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to do if England came home with the World Cup - which they didn't).
Maybe it has to do with war, but there is no competition that stirs the emotion like international tourney. And unfortunately, given the relatively insular nature of US sport, it is not a phenomenon much experienced by the general American populace. But imagine what could be. This is what the Soccer World Cup is like, so why not baseball?
First, a quick reality check. It is unrealistic to think that baseball will ever become the world's dominant sport, at least not in the near future. Simple math tells us that. Its bastion is North / Central America and parts of East Asia. Beyond those shores there are very few countries where baseball even merits a mention. Take two countries that competed in the Classic: South Africa and Netherlands, both countries that I have recently spent time in. Here baseball doesn't even register as a sport, yet they are two of the 16 elite countries competing in the equivalent of the baseball World Cup. People outside the Americas just don't understand the rules of baseball, let alone the nuances that one needs to fully appreciate the game. The perception is that baseball is a somewhat dull sport played by a bunch of lazy, slightly overweight and vastly overpaid Americans, who have a particularly nasty habit of chewing and spitting tobacco. They also snicker at the gall of any sport than can claim to call its championship the World Series when the only non US team that has any chance of getting a ring is less than 100 miles from the American border. What must MLB do to change such anachronistic views?
There are a number of things that need to happen. And here are just four:
1. Clean up the sport
Drugs pervade many sports, but Baseball has a reputation that precedes it, and it needs cleaning up - or at least seen to be cleaning up. Whether or not you believe that Bonds' exploits are a result of juice, or you believe it is a consequence of expansion, or luck, or something else, is irrelevant. Baseball must be seen to be clean. The drugs issue pollutes the sport on a daily basis and there is no way that drug ridden baseball can be sold to the world. The solution is straight forward: MLB must take a hard line with cheats and drug pariahs must be expunged from the game. Random blood testing after every game in conjunction with life bans for any performance enhancing drug use should do the trick nicely.
2. Begin to build a global sport
I expect this article to generate a few cantankerous comments. After all it is easy to make glib statements like "build a global sport", but it is usually nigh on impossible to achieve. There are a number of things that Baseball can, and should, do. Here are a few suggestions (I am sure others have better ideas):
First, establish a global club competition. Initially, at the end of every season the winners of the World Series, together with the top Asian team (perhaps after a play-off between the Japanese and Koreans) should have a best of seven series to find the true World Champion. There are questions as to whether the American public would see the tournament as anything other than Mickey Mouse and whether teams would take the event seriously, but it would start to raise interest in the game beyond US shores. There are sporting precedents. For example in Rugby the advent of international club competition has transformed the popularity of the game in the last 10 years. Also in soccer, the European cup (a pan continental tournament) is the richest and most prestigious in the game. A world club championship will build baseball's popularity.
Second, develop alliances with other sports. The obvious choice is cricket. Both sports are played with bat and ball, and while Cricket is a major sport in the Untied Kingdom, Indian sub-continent and many antipodean countries, baseball isn't. If MLB were to ally itself with cricket to educate people about the sport while, at the same time, investing in grass roots development baseball may begin to increase in popularity. Sure, this is a long process but it helps MLB gain awareness in countries where it currently has none. Only once baseball has built this awareness can people begin to understand and follow it.
Third, tour overseas. How can baseball ever increase in popularity unless the best teams showcase their abilities to the world? The answer is they can't. Many fans understandably don't like the idea of touring overseas: players suffer jet lag, fans can't see their teams play and it is difficult to see how it grows the game. Believe me it does. When Manchester United tours the US it generates substantial column inches, attracts new fans and puts the world's best players on a new stage. It would be no different if the Red Sox played the Yankees in London.
3. Make the WBC a real world tournament
There were a few problems with the WBC that devalued the tournament. First, pitch counts were laughably low, which was a mockery. Second, the mercy rule devalued the competition to little league status. And third, it was played at the wrong time of year. Many of the stars flaunt their skills in MLB and it is nonsensical for them to be playing serious competition before the season begins. Like the soccer World Cup it would make more sense to play the WBC after the season ends, though the weather is a factor counting against this option. Also having a single country hosting the tournament will help, much like the USA hosted the 1994 soccer World Cup. This will result in more of the game's stars playing overseas (a good thing - see above) and allow one country to get swept up in the fever of hosting the world's premier baseball competition.
4. Start small and build on early successes
Success will be difficult to come by. Baseball is largely an unknown quantity in much of Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. Start by building the sport in countries where it is already strong. In other countries where the common folk don't even know that baseball is played on a diamond launch education programs. Slowly more and more people will start to understand the beauty of our national pastime. With time, money and a bit of luck perhaps baseball can start to develop an international following that, hopefully, will translate into strong international competition.
I suspect there will be (some strong) disagreement to what I have said above. I wouldn't expect anything less. There is a debate to be had as to whether we Americans want baseball to be an international sport with global interest and pan-national competition. The arguments for are definitely compelling but the road is long and rocky. Is it ambitious? Absolutely. Is it realistic? I have no idea - I want to say yes. But that is not to say we should shy away from such challenges. Let me return to what sparked this debate: soccer. In Australia, Soccer is a distant fifth in popularity (behind Rugby League, Cricket, Aussie Rules Football and Rugby Union) yet progress to the second round of the World Cup sent the nation into a collective frenzy. In South Africa, despite the national team not even qualifying for the World Cup the Ghana vs Brazil game practically bought the nation to a standstill. During the heat of the NHL and NBA playoffs even ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports had the fate of the US soccer team as their main headline. Soccer inspires. Imagine how great it would be if we could say the same about baseball?