MIAMI -- It's not that Tuesday night's 7-1 win for Team U.S.A. in round two of the World Baseball Classic didn't matter. The players clearly cared, David Wright's 5 RBIs were celebrated, and the fans, more than 30,000 of them, were into the game. The second round of the World Baseball Classic doesn't leave a lot of room for error, and if the U.S. had lost they could have faced elimination tomorrow against Italy, hardly the kind of progress that the Americans were hoping to make, having missed the finals in 2006 and 2009.
The game mattered; it's the American progress that turns out not to matter so much.
Until recently, the World Baseball Classic's success, or lack thereof, has typically been evaluated in the American press based on how it was being received here in the U.S. And, since that reception to this point could be described as an island of mild interest in a sea of apathy, people have assumed that what the WBC really needed to achieve was getting U.S. fans more excited. But this year the conversation has started to shift. Maybe the WBC could become more popular in America, but that's not how its success will be measured. As Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal put it Monday, "it's not really about us."
The World Baseball Classic was always designed to spread the game, of course -- partly for reasons of friendly cultural ambassadorship, sure, why not, but also because there are billions of dollars worth of untapped potential MLB fans in China and Brazil and Europe. That was hardly a secret, but the real scope of the possibilities, and the changes the game could see if this nice little tournament grows the way MLB officials think it might grow, are only starting to sink in.
Imagine a true "World Series" where the U.S. champion played the Japanese champion -- commissioner Bud Selig can. That's a ways off, but it's certainly not impossible. Imagine a version of the World Baseball Classic as massively popular worldwide as the World Cup. Who knows if it ever gets anywhere near there, but MLB Executive VP of Business Tim Brosnan is thinking about it now. "It creates a promise," he says, "that's what we want, is a promise that this can become a tournament just like the World Cup in soccer where 110, 120, 130 countries believe they have a chance to eventually win."
What does Major League Baseball look like if the game is truly global? When does Brazil become a pipeline of major league talent? Italy? What happens if China embraces the game? Or places that don't even have a national team yet?
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After Tuesday afternoon's game, which a surprisingly resilient Italian team lost to the Dominican Republic, 5-4, coach Mike Piazza spoke about the loss in the usual post-game terms. His clichés were in peak playing form; he credited the opponents, and said that his team had "battled" at least five different times. But when asked about baseball in Italy, he perked up.
"I believe the future over there is player development," he told reporters. "There's just thousands of kids in Italy who don't play soccer, who love baseball ... I'm pushing for a really nice Dominican-style academy in southern Italy where the weather's nice where we can get players from not just Italy but the rest of Europe.
"The kids over there -- the world is shrinking. You know, they're watching baseball on the internet now, you can get a package, you don't have to have TV, you can learn more about it. There's a genuine interest over there. If we can continue to draw attention to that, I just truly believe that we can produce players." If Piazza sounds optimistic, he has some reason to: Italy this tournament has beaten Mexico, crushed Canada, and hung right in there with the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. Granted, that's with the aid of plenty of players who weren't born in Italy, but also plenty who were, including Mariners infielder Alex Liddi, the first Italian-born player in the majors.
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There are a lot of reasons why you might not care about the World Baseball Classic, and we've heard most of them over the last few weeks. You care about your team, not a secondary national team. Or you're not into it because not all the best players are there. Or you think it's an artificial money grab.
Well, it certainly is a money grab. But, as money grabs go, it appears to be a relatively harmless one. It did start out artificially enough, and now the real question is whether it will become organic.
Not only was the measure of WBC success not American ratings, says Brosnan, it's not ratings at all -- not even in Japan or Chinese Taipei where recent games set viewership records.
"If you believe that the underlying premise for the WBC is to expand baseball around the world," says Brosnan, who does, "there's a hundred different measurements to look at success for this tournament. One of which is who's participating and who thinks they have to promise to compete. In 2013 we've had China, Chinese Taipei, we have the Dutch going into the final round, we have Brazil advancing to the 16."
These are talking points, but there's something there. In 2006, China couldn't field a properly competitive team -- they were blown out 18-2, 10-1 and 12-3 -- and there was no major league baseball on TV there. This time around, they beat Brazil and lost respectably to Japan, only getting blown out by Cuba, and had clearly improved their play. And: There are now major league games on TV in China. Is that because of the WBC?
"The Chinese government chooses sports for a lot of reasons, one of which is to build national pride," said Bronsan. "They've obviously decided that baseball being an Asian, east-Asian kind of power territory, if you will, that they're going to compete there… and so naturally when the government's in favor things happen. We'd like to think that WBC participation opened the door to a lot of different things for baseball in China, among them baseball on television, clinics, baseball academies being run in conjunction with Chinese government agencies. So, sure, we think the WBC's had a lot to do with baseball's wider acceptance in China, particularly by the government."
Not a particularly romantic view of a country learning to love baseball. But however it happens, a China that's interested in baseball is a massive, massive new market.
Piazza was thinking along those same lines. "The continent of Europe's got 600 million people," he said (it's actually over 700 million). "They buy hats and gloves and jerseys and watch games on TV."
(Of course, this all sounds a bit like what the international community has been saying about soccer in the United States for decades and decades.)
Every team in the majors would benefit from China or Europe becoming a viable market -- but this is all years away, even in the most optimistic theories. So while owners and general managers might recognize the ultimate point, the benefits could come long after their own tenures -- whereas losing a player to injury, or having a star pitcher thrown off his spring training rhythm, is a serious problem right now.
There is a flip side, however. If -- just if -- MLB's dreams for the WBC are at all realistic, if Italy and Holland (which just committed $13 million to a new baseball academy, as Brosnan is quick to point out) and China start developing their own high-caliber players, then major league teams' personnel decisions would matter less and less.
In other words, the key to growing a tournament that celebrates America's self-proclaimed national pastime seems to be taking the focus off of America as much as possible.