World Baseball Classic reinforces international appeal of America’s National Pastime

The Cuban national team has been one of the most talented at the  the World Baseball Classic, which is played every three years.

I remember when Ozzie Virgil joined the Tigers. Although he was counted as Detroit’s first “black” player, making the Tigers the second-to-last club to integrate, he was of Hispanic origin, born in the Dominican Republic. It amounted to the same thing: baseball was from that day on no longer an all-white pastime, even in Detroit, and the following season Boston – the last bastion of segregated baseball – was integrated, finally, in 1959.

Five and a half decades later, a glance at the lineup of the Tigers (or any other team) makes it obvious that baseball is no longer an all-American pastime. In clubhouses, there’s as much Spanish spoken as English. Not to mention some Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. Certainly baseball has become one of our country’s most successful exports.

In idle moments I’ve sometimes imagined what the major leagues would be like if someday there were franchises in Tokyo, Havana, or Caracas. Of course, politics might prevent that, and those road trips across the Pacific would be brutal. But these days my fantasies have come partially to life in the form of the World Baseball Classic.

Thanks to the MLB network, I’ve been looking in on the WBC games. In its third incarnation, this spring novelty is starting to more closely resemble a template for true international competition. Yes, the games can still be lame: for example, a Netherlands-Australia game played before a handful of fans in Taiwan. Yet, when China visits Tokyo to play Japan, Mexico and the U.S. team meet in Phoenix, or Puerto Rico hosts the Dominican, it’s no longer merely a manufactured rivalry. And the showdown between the United States and Canada for a berth in the second round was actually quite exciting. (But what is Joe Torre doing batting Joe Mauer fourth and Giancarlo Stanton seventh?}

But, like the All-Star Game, the atmosphere is more showcase exhibition than serious business. And for the same reasons. One obvious reason is that any one game in professional baseball by its nature shouldn’t be determinative of anything. It’s not like other sports. And also, the gang’s not all here yet. Major league teams, with their huge investments in star players, don’t want to risk them being injured in what they see as meaningless games. While the Tigers can’t really stop Miguel Cabrera and Omar Infante from playing for Venezuela, they weren’t pushing America’s top pitcher to start for Team USA, as he rightly should be. In fact, exactly zero Tigers are playing on the U.S. squad.

It’s clear that the Tigers put business before country, and that’s their right. So let a Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays, send one of their aces to the mound in the WBC. Granted, R.A. Dickey is less likely to hurt his arm floating knucklers than Justin Verlander is firing a fastball.

And it isn’t just the Tigers playing it safe. If you had to name one player who ought to be on his national team, Ichiro should be playing for Japan, but he isn’t. (Though he did play in the WBC twice before.)

The WBC is potentially good theater. No countries outside the U.S. will ever put their national pride on the line in a baseball competition in the way they do for soccer. But while the diamond will never replace the pitch as a sacred global sporting ground, global competition is in every way appropriate now that baseball has become a popular sport in countries worldwide.

To keep growing in stature, the WBC needs to attract more MLB stars and get rid of things like pitch limits, which make it look too much like the Little League World Series. To do so, though, it will have to stop clashing with spring training. Why not play the next WBC in November, when MLB players won’t have to worry so much about the injury risk involved and when the participants will be sharper?

In any event, it’s clear that baseball is no longer just a game for white Americans. We are the world. I think Ozzie Virgil would be happy about that.