WASHINGTON, March 7, 2013 — Every time the World Baseball Classic rolls around, the organizers deserve props for trying. On the surface, the WBC remains as promising an idea today as it did seven years ago when the first iteration took place with sixteen nations chosen by the organizers as the “best baseball-playing nations in the world”.
As an international competition for baseball, the Olympics fell short and eventually eliminated baseball entirely. The WBC ideally arose to fill that void with baseball’s version of the World Cup. The teams from the Americas would load up with major league starters and minor league prospects.
Those from the Far East would build around players from the Japanese league, Nippon Professional Baseball. The rest would patch their rosters together with a mix of both and players from fledgling domestic setups, professional and amateur. And maybe, just maybe, the game would explode in new markets.
It’s ridiculously hard to make a worldwide competition in a localized sport take off. Even this year, with version three of the WBC sporting games in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, Japan, and Taiwan, the host teams are drawing fans to near capacity, while games between non-hosts are bringing anywhere 1,000-4,000 paying spectators.
Year after year, the numbers keep telling what’s probably the truth: baseball’s hotspots are firmly grounded in Japan, South Korea, the Americas, and the Caribbean and are unlikely to shift or expand. But the same tantalizing visions that cropped up in 2006 are still here in the products of the new qualifying system: Spain and Brazil.
What do Brazil and Spain have in common? (Hint: If you know your geography, the answer is not shared language.) They took the two hardest spots up for grabs in the inaugural WBC qualifying competitions. Spain, after bouncing a strong Israeli team, will play in a stacked Pool C, with only two players with MLB experience on their roster, right-handed pitcher Rhiner Cruz of the Houston Astros, and former Atlanta Braves first baseman Bárbaro Cañizares. Brazil was eliminated after going winless, dropping games to Japan, Cuba and China by a combined eight runs.
Can the Brazilians be called a Cinderella team after going winless? They made great strides just to earn the right to fly halfway around the world to round out Pool A. They won the most difficult regional qualifier, the Latin American one, by beating two-time WBC participants Panama twice, by one run both times, with a squad featuring one major leaguer. In fact, that one major leaguer, catcher Yan Gomes of the Cleveland Indians, is the only Brazilian-born player to have made it to the major leagues.
Spain is also unlikely to make any competition inroads. To do that, they’d have to get past two teams out of a powerful trio composed of Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Then again, the same was said of the Netherlands four years ago, and they edged the Dominicans not once, but twice to eliminate them and advance to the second round.
This time around, the Dutch are into the next bracket again after shutting out the 2009 runners-up from South Korea.
For many obvious reasons, seeing baseball supplant fútbol in Brazil or Spain is even further from reality than a pipe dream. The infrastructure isn’t there. The system is dead set against it. But to toss out the favored term, there’s a market inefficiency in Brazilian baseball.
And if seeing the national team made headway in the World Baseball Classic is what causes the sport to gain even the slightest bit of popularity in Brazil, Spain or wherever, then the tournament will have done what is truly within its power: to spread the allure of the sport even if it can’t make it into a ticket-selling attraction.
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