In the finest
tradition of American commercialism, Major League Baseball would be happy to
sell you a $19.99 Italy cap, a $164.99 South Africa home jersey, a $234.99
Derek Jeter USA jersey and various other trinkets associated with the inaugural
and presumptuously named World Baseball Classic. Souvenirs aside, what MLB is
really selling is a vision: of a day when its game is played on multiple
continents and the demand for the major league brand-think programming,
advanced media, international corporate sponsorship and, yes, T-shirts and
hats-covers the globe. How do you say "season tickets" in Mandarin? �
The 16-team Classic begins on Friday with first-round pool play in Tokyo among
four Asian teams and culminates with the championship game on March 20 in San
Diego, the last of 39 games spread among seven venues. Many of the world's best
players are scheduled to participate, including eight MVPs and three Cy Young
Award winners. The Classic, with its awkward pitch limitations, U.S.-favorable
scheduling and anything-can-happen, single-elimination format in the semifinals
and final, may well be incapable of determining a genuine world champion, but
that's less of a concern than expanding MLB's reach-industry talk for
cultivating new customers and developing more players beyond U.S. borders. �
Big league baseball is, by almost any definition, more popular in the U.S. than
ever, with another attendance record expected this season. But the sport is
also pushing closer to a saturation point in this country. Witness the Florida
Marlins' difficulty the past five years in finding a suitable relocation spot.
The 1.3 billion-person market in China, however, offers enormous potential for
commissioner Bud Selig acknowledges that the Classic is more important to MLB's
growth abroad than at home. As an example, consider the starting time of the
March 18 semifinal in which, if the favorites advance, the U.S. would play
Japan: 10 p.m. EST on a Saturday, assuring a ratings disaster in the U.S. (Fox,
baseball's network TV partner, is sitting out the Classic; all games will be
carried by ESPN and its sister stations.) But the game has a noon Sunday
starting time in baseball-mad Japan, where World Series games have been known
to generate better ratings (as a percentage of viewers) than in the U.S.
Asked if the
furthest extrapolation of the Classic is a truly global major league structure
that would include intercontinental play in at least a postseason tournament,
Selig said, "Yes, that is a dream of mine. Obviously there would have to be
advances in [speed of] air travel to help facilitate it. This [Classic] is just
the first step. Without it we don't have a chance."
The quest for
international revenue growth has become the rare common ground between major
league owners and the players' association. Union officials, for instance,
aggressively recruited the top major leaguers to participate in the
Classic-even hooking up lesser powers such as Italy and the Netherlands with
name players such as Mike Piazza and Andruw Jones, respectively-knowing that an
A-list of players was needed to make the event worthwhile. That effort was a
success, though a raft of withdrawals in the past few months have included
stars such as Barry Bonds, Tim Hudson, Aramis Ramirez, Manny Ramirez and Pedro
Martinez (for at least the first round).
So motivated are
the players that the biggest worry among general managers is that they may try
too hard, exerting themselves with playoff-level intensity at a time of year
when their body clocks usually are synchronized for lazy spring training games.
National pride, not a grand marketing plan, is the carrot for the participating
Venezuela are going crazy about the Classic," San Francisco Giants
shortstop Omar Vizquel said last week. "It's been an incredible year for
baseball in Venezuela: Bobby Abreu wins the All-Star home run derby, Ozzie
Guillen wins the World Series, and Venezuela wins the Caribbean World Series.
Now people are excited to see Venezuela be known for being Number 1 in baseball
in the whole world."
play the Dominican Republic as many as three times just to reach the final
(box, left). Indeed, the second-round Pool 2 play on March 12-15 in San Juan is
likely to include Latin American powerhouses Venezuela, the Dominican Republic,
Puerto Rico and Cuba in hotly contested games in a charged, festive atmosphere.
The only time the U.S., which plays out of the other side of bracket, would
meet one of those teams would be in the title game.
The U.S. is
considered the favorite because it has no obvious holes. Manager Buck Martinez
can employ this batting order: centerfielder Johnny Damon, shortstop Jeter,
third baseman Alex Rodriguez, DH Mark Teixeira, first baseman Derrek Lee,
leftfielder Ken Griffey Jr., catcher Jason Varitek, rightfielder Jeff Francoeur
and second baseman Chase Utley. The roster includes only four starting
pitchers- Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, C.C. Sabathia and Dontrelle Willis-but a
deep corps of hard-throwing relievers.
The depth of the
30-man roster, however, matters much less in the one-game-elimination
semifinals and final than it does in a series. One pitcher unfamiliar to major
league hitters who throws the game of his life trumps having, for instance,
batting champion Michael Young on the bench or American League Rookie of the
Year Huston Street available in middle relief.
allowed to throw as many as 95 pitches in the semis and final. The limits are
much more severe in pool play (65 pitches in the first round and 80 in the
second) to protect major leaguers from the risk of injury as they build arm
strength for the regular season. The pitcher must be removed when he reaches
the limit, though if it occurs in the middle of an at bat, he will be permitted
to finish pitching to that hitter.