Not yet ready for globalisation

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Small world: An American player at the World Baseball Classic series. Photo: AP
Small world: An American player at the World Baseball Classic series. Photo: AP

What makes the baseball World Series, a global competition? The participation of two Canadian teams...

WITH all my recent literary preoccupations in this space, I omitted to inform my readers of a major global development you might all have missed this year: Japan beat Cuba for the world championship of baseball.

Exaggerated claims

Now we all know that baseball is not exactly a sport at which the rest of the world excels, so that talk of a "world championship" may seem faintly overblown. Like cricket, it is a game that defines the culture of its adherents: just as cricket is played only in the formerly colonised lands we euphemistically call the British Commonwealth, baseball belongs only to those upon whom the star-spangled shadow of American influence has fallen directly. This confines it largely to North America, the Caribbean and two island nations in East Asia - Japan, which the United States Army occupied for over a decade at the end of World War II, and Taiwan. The world of baseball is, quite literally, a small one.Fine, you might well say: isn't Test cricket limited to just 10 countries? And yet cricket fanatics cheerfully wax eloquent about its World Cup. But baseball is even worse: the sport's "world" championship, officially called the World Series and played annually with a degree of hype and hoopla that cricket would be hard put to match, does not, in fact, include teams from around the world. It is a contest between the winners of the two "leagues" into which America's baseball clubs are divided. These are named - with the same national gift for tautology that gave the United States the Republican and Democratic parties - the American League and the National League. The rest of the world, to misapply a phrase, is left to find a league of their own.So what makes the World Series a world series of matches? Clearly the lack of a convincing answer to that question lay behind the decision, finally, to hold a real world championship of the sport, involving teams representing countries, not American cities. The U.S. was expected to win: it nearly got eliminated in the first round, then staggered through to the semis. But the fact is that the U.S. already suffered the mortification of not becoming the "world champion" at the sport in the one competition the rest of the world recognises - the Olympics. When the sport was introduced into the Olympics at Barcelona in 1992, Cuba beat Japan to the Olympic gold medal in baseball. This year's inaugural world championship merely reversed that result.

A bad investment

But the Olympics in baseball, unlike in athletics, were not the apogee of the sport. Though Cuba and Japan undoubtedly fielded their best players in Barcelona, the U.S. did not. It entered a team of collegians and amateurs. The best baseball players in the U.S. were too busy. They are all professionals in the American and National Leagues, practising their craft to the accompaniment of the ringing of cash registers, and the Olympics were taking place, inconveniently enough, at the height of the domestic baseball season. The very idea that any of America's baseball clubs (each based in a city and bearing fanciful names of dubious provenance and varying degrees of absurdity, from the Florida Marlins to the Cleveland Indians) would release one of their highly-paid stars for two or three weeks to represent his country in the Olympics was laughable. This is a sport in which the players' salaries average over a million dollars a year, and where the highest paid performers take home more than 10 times that. To give any of them unpaid leave for the sake of one more national gold medal would, from the point of view of club owners, managers, players and fans alike, have been worse than a sin: it would have been a bad investment.

The Canadian connection

Now the only thing that gives American baseball a global flavour apart from the legion of gifted professionals from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic who have emigrated here to play in it - was the inclusion in each League of one team from outside the United States. Not very far outside, of course; the extra-territorials were Canadian: the Montreal Expos in the National League, and the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League. Montreal's limitations are routinely Exposed by their opposition every year. The Blue Jays, however, equipped with an all-weather Skydome which is already Toronto's major tourist attraction, kept getting better and better every year until in 1992 they did the unthinkable and won the World Series itself.America reeled in shock: for the first time in its history, the World Championship was leaving the country! Wails and laments filled the sports pages and opinion columns. Had baseball needed bails I have no doubt that a couple of enterprising ladies would have burned them to create the sport's answer to the Ashes. It was almost as if, with the expatriation of the World Series, America had lost a special something, an ineffable quality that normally infused the nation with pride and self-definition. Amidst all the fuss, however, few bothered to point out that, while the championship had gone to the Canadian team, the World Series hadn't actually been won by Canadians. In a sport where who you play for is defined almost exclusively by what you are paid, every single one of the 25 players on the rolls of the Toronto Blue Jays was an American.You can see why the globalisation of baseball is going to have to wait a while...



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