World Baseball Classic merits major league respect

Unlike other nations, U.S. does not cherish a national team

March 12, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Sports fans around the world must have trouble understanding the petulance expressed by various Major League Baseball team officials about their players' participating in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. That's because in the rest of the world, there is no higher calling than playing for your national team.

I saw this firsthand during the years I was The Sun's correspondent in South Africa. The local cricket team was one of the powers in the equivalent of the country's major leagues, but regularly its top players were stripped to head to India or Australia or the West Indies for one the national team's three-month road trips. There was no squawking. This was the reason the local cricket and soccer and rugby teams existed: to produce players for the national side. It would be like a minor league baseball team complaining that its players were called up to the majors.

But such has not been the case with the World Baseball Classic. Among owners (particularly the Yankees' George Steinbrenner), managers and plenty of sportswriters, there has only been worry about injuries and missing a couple of weeks of spring training run-down drills for what many have dismissed as a bush-league tournament.

My suggestion is to give the World Baseball Classic a chance. Sixteen national teams are battling it out for the crown, and while the outcome might not matter to Steinbrenner and his ilk, it certainly does to fans of, say, the Dominican Republic, which turns out many baseball emigrants who have no trouble getting green cards when they join major league teams.

The tournament teams are drawn mainly from the Americas and Asia, with a few interesting additions, such as Italy - where American World War II servicemen left baseball behind - and, yes, South Africa, where baseball was introduced by Yanks who came over to mine diamonds and gold in the late 19th century.

Americans just don't get national teams because we tend to concentrate on sports - baseball, football, basketball - that grew up domestically. But, face it, with the exception of football they are not our sports anymore. Taking Latino players away from Major League Baseball rosters would be like taking Canadians from National Hockey League rosters 30 years ago (or Swedish and Czech players today). You could hardly field a team.

These players come from countries that know what it's like to root for a national team. Remember how you felt when Team USA beat the Soviet Union in hockey at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980? That's the type of passion fans in most countries feel regularly, especially with soccer and its quadrennial World Cup - which also strips players from their professional teams so they can play for national squads.

It would be great if the World Baseball Classic could develop into baseball's World Cup. Ask any player in England's top soccer division - the Premier League - if he would rather win the prestigious FA Cup for his English team or the World Cup for his national squad? It's a no-brainer.

Maybe one day the so-called World Series will take a back seat to this real world series. And then U.S. fans would begin to understand the passion that propels the rest of the sporting world. That would be another milestone of globalization.

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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