Baseball has long been considered America’s pastime. But the numbers are starting to tell a different story. In 2012, roughly 28 percent of players on opening-day Major League Baseball rosters were born outside of the United States and nearly 47 percent in MLB’s Minor Leagues.
Given this global predilection for the game, it stands to reason that there should be a commensurate global competition – a true World Series, so to speak. Oddly, and sadly, the best alternative there seems to be at the moment is the still-infant World Baseball Classic.
The World Baseball Classic was created in 2006 to increase the global popularity of the sport. At first, it coexisted with Olympic baseball and the Baseball World cup but has since become the only international baseball event. Olympic baseball and the Baseball World Cup were unsuccessful because of scheduling conflicts with professional leagues around the globe. Typically, college players and minor leaguers were featured on the rosters—which limited the excitement in the competition.
The WBC is usually scheduled in the early months of the year, this year it will be from March 2nd to March 19th. In theory, this schedule provides a better opportunity for professional athletes to join the event.
However, the World Baseball Classic is not yet, the informed argue, a stage in which the best talent in the world can be properly evaluated. It has only been held twice, which undermines both its cultural value and the statistical utility of its results.
The World Baseball Classic is more likely to succeed than Olympic Baseball and the Baseball World Cup, because there is less of a scheduling conflict with professional leagues. There still is, unfortunately, a hesitancy to join because players are being paid to play for their professional team and volunteering to play for their home country. Professional teams are encouraging their players not to participate in the event due to the risk of injury. And for the players, they know an injury could considerably damage their chance of signing future contracts.
This could be a major factor in the United States’ underperformance—it has placed no higher than fourth in the WBC. And not just for the U.S.: the Dominican Republic has produced some of the best baseball players in the world, and yet holds similarly dismal rankings. They, like the United States, have a lot of their best players sitting out of the event in favor of preparing for the MLB season.
There is an opportunity for the WBC to succeed, nonetheless. Other sports like soccer and basketball are continually becoming more and more popular during Olympic and World Cup games. The allure of international competition from a global perspective has, in a way, superseded the professional levels of soccer and basketball—something baseball has yet to achieve.
The outcome of the previous two tournaments has certainly heightened the excitement heading into the event that is still three months away. For many countries, that time will be spent preparing for competition against Japan and South Korea–the top two ranked teams in the World Baseball Classic.
Previously seeding 16 teams, the 2013 WBC games will expand their pool to 28 teams. Canada, Chinese Taipei, Panama and South Africa didn’t win a single game in 2009 and will compete in a “play-in round” to advance to the World Baseball Classic. France, Spain, Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, Colombia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Israel, Thailand, the Czech Republic and the Philippines are all competing for the first time and will need to win their individual group pools to advance to the World Baseball Classic.
The United States might still host the most competitive professional baseball league in the world. But the phrase many Americans hold near and dear may no longer be true. America’s pastime might not be their best sport. Until the United States can grab a hold of the “World Champion” title in the World Baseball Classic, they are simply not the best baseball country in the world.