Baseball has always been defined as something intrinsically American. But how do you define “America”? For me, the word is evolving into something ever more worldly and abstracted; more of a concept and a lifestyle than a static, geographically limited identity.
At first blush, one might limit the term to mean only a citizen of the country of the United States of America. There are 34 other countries in North and South America and their populations total 550M, or 65% of the total population of the two continents. Although the first definition of “American” in the American Heritage Dictionary is specific to the US, the second usage is the more inclusive “of or relating to North or South America, the West Indies, or the Western Hemisphere.”
On Opening Day 2005, 25 percent, or 205 players, originated from Latin American countries. There were also fifteen Canadians. Estimates of minor league players from countries other than the US hover at approximately 48%, which means that the MLB of the future will continue to be more diverse.
With the World Baseball Classic, MLB is attempting to unbrand its players and teams from the league franchises and resell them in their countries’ colors. For all the ballyhoo about making this a showcase for the game and birthing a global sports phenomenon, to me the event is more a slick promotional package to make headway into untapped consumer markets. It’s not an affirmation of love for the game--it’s commoditization
Baseball used to open hearts and minds. Now it opens wallets and trade barriers; just read this Forbes article on the MLB’s strategy to grab market share.
Ken Burns touchingly documented the game and emphasized how baseball is a reflection life and society in the United States. I’m not so callow to think that money and baseball have never been bedfellows, but with the huge amounts of revenue at stake, the connection has never been more manifest.
As much as the typical US baseball fan may say she yearns for the days of yore, I believe the tepid reaction to the WBC by fans in the US has an economic basis. For the most part, these fans have already invested their dollars into their chosen MLB team. Given ticket prices today, that investment is not trivial. If one of the stars of the WBC should be injured, there will undoubtedly be a hue and cry in that player’s MLB fanbase. In fourteen other countries, however, the fans don’t have major league teams of their own. The classic probably holds more meaning to them.
It’s ironic that the one country where baseball is played at an elite level for the joy of the sport alone was nearly barred from participation and is only allowed to play because it will receive no revenue from the games.
Baseball is America’s gift to the world, but Selig wants an burgeoning product line to accompany his bequest. And that seems to be the real American way.