If you've heard Bud Selig gush over the World Baseball Classic, you might think the global tournament's arrival in March will be the sport's biggest moment since the birth of Abner Doubleday. "The most important international baseball event ever staged," the commissioner called it when details of the World Cup--style event--16 countries will play over 18 days in the U.S., Japan and Puerto Rico--were unveiled at baseball's winter meetings in Dallas last month. "This takes the sport to another dimension."
If you say so, Bud, but to a lot of people in and close to the game in the U.S., this feels about as necessary as New Coke. Less than two months before South Korea and Chinese Taipei take the field in Tokyo for the WBC opener on March 3, major league general managers are concerned that players may be putting their seasons at risk. "A lot of pitchers are just starting to get into their routine and building up arm strength when March comes around," says one G.M. "We'll see how this idea is when the first big star goes down with an injury." Privately some think big names (Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez are among those who have said they'll play) will drop out, claiming injury. Baseball's network TV partner, Fox, is ignoring the event--even the final, which is scheduled to be played in San Diego on March 20--presumably on the theory that not enough fans care. (According to MLB sources, it will be announced this week that games will air on ESPN.) It's not a bad theory. So far, fewer than 20% of the 49,000 tickets available for the U.S.'s first two opening-round games, in Phoenix, have been sold.
The ticket push didn't gain much momentum last week when the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) announced that it won't sanction the Classic if Cuba, which was banned from the event in December by the Treasury Department because of the U.S. embargo on the communist country, isn't allowed to compete. Such a move could force participating countries to drop out or face being banned from future international events. MLB officials say they are "extremely confident" that Cuba will ultimately be allowed to play now that Fidel Castro has promised to donate all of his country's WBC earnings to Hurricane Katrina victims. (Each participating country will take home at least 1% of the tournament profits, with the winner getting 10%.) But the IBAF threat further undermined what many in this country view as a glorified spring training exhibition. How seriously will fans take a competition in which Mike Piazza--the pride of Norristown, Pa.--will probably hit cleanup for Team Italy and managers will be handcuffed by mandated pitch counts for each hurler? (Limits will most likely start at 65 pitches for early rounds and escalate to 100 for the championship game.)
The truth is, organizers don't much care if the WBC plays in Peoria as long as it bowls 'em over in Beijing. The target audience isn't American fans but those in untapped markets in Asia, Europe and Central America, where Major League Baseball would love to sell TV rights and licensed paraphernalia. "Yes, we'll look at TV ratings, attendance and other numbers here, but we'll also look elsewhere," says WBC head Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president of international operations. "If we're getting a 30 or 35 [TV] rating in Venezuela, then it's a success, no matter how we do here."
NBA commissioner David Stern, who has watched Yao Ming's emergence draw 30 million viewers per game to Rockets broadcasts in China, predicts that within a decade foreign broadcasts will account for a third of the league's television revenue. Selig hopes the WBC will drive similar global growth for baseball. In some corners it's already working: In the Dominican Republic a debate has been raging in the media and at a grassroots level over which stars should be hitting where in its juggernaut lineup. (Which of the following mashers would you tell to hit seventh: Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada or David Ortiz?) Ditto for Japan. "The media intensity about this is very different overseas than it is [in the U.S.]," says Hideki Okuda, a writer for the Japanese daily newspaper Sports Nippon. "When [Yankees leftfielder] Hideki Matsui said he wasn't competing, that was front-page news in Japan."
Selig hopes to stir the same passion in Africa, Europe and especially China, where a fledgling baseball market with a populace of 1.3 billion potential TV viewers, jersey buyers and cap collectors beckons. He'll be helped by the star power that should be on hand for the WBC, even if some drop out. Seven former MVPs (including Bonds and Ichiro Suzuki) and six of the last nine Cy Young Award recipients (including Roger Clemens, Martinez and Johan Santana) have promised to come. "A lot of us are excited but also curious to see how this goes," says Santana, the Twins ace who will pitch for Venezuela. "I don't know how big it will be here [in the U.S.]. But I can tell you that Venezuela is going to go crazy." In this era of the global economy, that's all Bud Selig is hoping for.
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"Everyone makes fun of Young's motion, but you can't argue with his results." --A CHANGED MAN, PAGE 18
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO