In the finesttradition of American commercialism, Major League Baseball would be happy tosell you a $19.99 Italy cap, a $164.99 South Africa home jersey, a $234.99Derek Jeter USA jersey and various other trinkets associated with the inauguraland presumptuously named World Baseball Classic. Souvenirs aside, what MLB isreally selling is a vision: of a day when its game is played on multiplecontinents and the demand for the major league brand-think programming,advanced media, international corporate sponsorship and, yes, T-shirts andhats-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 amongfour Asian teams and culminates with the championship game on March 20 in SanDiego, the last of 39 games spread among seven venues. Many of the world's bestplayers are scheduled to participate, including eight MVPs and three Cy YoungAward winners. The Classic, with its awkward pitch limitations, U.S.-favorablescheduling and anything-can-happen, single-elimination format in the semifinalsand final, may well be incapable of determining a genuine world champion, butthat's less of a concern than expanding MLB's reach-industry talk forcultivating new customers and developing more players beyond U.S. borders. ¬∂Big league baseball is, by almost any definition, more popular in the U.S. thanever, with another attendance record expected this season. But the sport isalso pushing closer to a saturation point in this country. Witness the FloridaMarlins' difficulty the past five years in finding a suitable relocation spot.The 1.3 billion-person market in China, however, offers enormous potential forrevenue growth.
Baseballcommissioner Bud Selig acknowledges that the Classic is more important to MLB'sgrowth abroad than at home. As an example, consider the starting time of theMarch 18 semifinal in which, if the favorites advance, the U.S. would playJapan: 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 becarried by ESPN and its sister stations.) But the game has a noon Sundaystarting time in baseball-mad Japan, where World Series games have been knownto generate better ratings (as a percentage of viewers) than in the U.S.
Asked if thefurthest extrapolation of the Classic is a truly global major league structurethat would include intercontinental play in at least a postseason tournament,Selig said, "Yes, that is a dream of mine. Obviously there would have to beadvances in [speed of] air travel to help facilitate it. This [Classic] is justthe first step. Without it we don't have a chance."
The quest forinternational revenue growth has become the rare common ground between majorleague owners and the players' association. Union officials, for instance,aggressively recruited the top major leaguers to participate in theClassic-even hooking up lesser powers such as Italy and the Netherlands withname players such as Mike Piazza and Andruw Jones, respectively-knowing that anA-list of players was needed to make the event worthwhile. That effort was asuccess, though a raft of withdrawals in the past few months have includedstars such as Barry Bonds, Tim Hudson, Aramis Ramirez, Manny Ramirez and PedroMartinez (for at least the first round).
So motivated arethe players that the biggest worry among general managers is that they may trytoo hard, exerting themselves with playoff-level intensity at a time of yearwhen their body clocks usually are synchronized for lazy spring training games.National pride, not a grand marketing plan, is the carrot for the participatingplayers.
"People inVenezuela are going crazy about the Classic," San Francisco Giantsshortstop Omar Vizquel said last week. "It's been an incredible year forbaseball in Venezuela: Bobby Abreu wins the All-Star home run derby, OzzieGuillen 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 baseballin the whole world."
Venezuela mustplay 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 islikely 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, wouldmeet one of those teams would be in the title game.
The U.S. isconsidered the favorite because it has no obvious holes. Manager Buck Martinezcan 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 Francoeurand second baseman Chase Utley. The roster includes only four startingpitchers-Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, C.C. Sabathia and Dontrelle Willis-but adeep corps of hard-throwing relievers.
The depth of the30-man roster, however, matters much less in the one-game-eliminationsemifinals and final than it does in a series. One pitcher unfamiliar to majorleague hitters who throws the game of his life trumps having, for instance,batting champion Michael Young on the bench or American League Rookie of theYear Huston Street available in middle relief.
Pitchers areallowed to throw as many as 95 pitches in the semis and final. The limits aremuch more severe in pool play (65 pitches in the first round and 80 in thesecond) to protect major leaguers from the risk of injury as they build armstrength for the regular season. The pitcher must be removed when he reachesthe limit, though if it occurs in the middle of an at bat, he will be permittedto finish pitching to that hitter.
In an interviewwith The Seattle Times last month Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners, who will playfor Japan, complained, "I can't believe they're imposing pitch limits. Ifthis is really going to be a tournament to determine the world's best baseballteam, then they should let us compete with normal rules."
As it is, majorleague general managers, managers and coaches will hold their collective breathduring the tournament, hoping their players escape healthy and don't sufferfrom late-season fatigue due to playing meaningful games in March. The groininjury suffered by Ottawa Senators goaltender Dominik Hasek in the Olympicslast month served as a reminder of one potential cost of selling a sportinternationally.
As with theopening of a fine restaurant, the Classic is bound to have flaws that are notapparent until it's actually up and running. The tournament is scheduled to beheld again in 2009-which gets it off the same schedule as the Winter Olympicsand World Cup, natural competitors for interest and advertising dollars-andevery four years thereafter.
"Anytime youtry something new, you're always going to have detractors," Selig says."I compare it to all the people who were against the wild card andinterleague play at first. But I don't think people understand how big this isfor the future of the game."
Let the sellingbegin.
Despite recent withdrawals the Classic still boasts (clockwise from top left)Ortiz, Jeter, Piazza, Suzuki and Santana.