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The WBC as Young Frankenstein

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Thursday, Mar 26, 2009

I’ve been on the road for—it seems—forever; hence the silence, and hopefully you’ve missed this voice. Words and pictures to follow.




For today though, I wanted to make a few brief comments about the World Baseball Classic (WBC), just completed. If you are not a baseball fan—no worries: this isn’t really an entry about the sport; it is more a commentary on America, ideology, globalization, monsters unleashed, and the future. Now, if any or all of those topics turn you off, then I guess my next hour or so of literary effort is going to be wasted. Pity on a perspiring writer.


But, if not, then herewith for your perusal and cogitation . . .




  
Having been in Japan when the Asian round began and then in LA when the final game was completed, I had occasion to view the Classic up close. And, a couple days now removed, and having played witness, read sundry commentary, and engaged in a little independent thinking, the following is fairly evident:


  1. this year’s installment was an improvement over the inaugural incarnation;
    • there was more extensive and more enthusiastic fan interest;
    • a better brand of baseball was on display;
    • the level of competition has become more equalized at the lower and middle-levels;
      • for instance, The Netherlands—of all things!—emerged as one of two qualifying teams from their pool, and The United States required a dramatic last at-bat to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and move onto the final round.
    • there was good drama through to the finish


      • not just as evidenced by the U.S.‘s 9th inning walk off victory against Puerto Rico, but a superb, nail-biting, “what-you-can-do-I-can-do-better”, extra-inning finale between Japan and South Korea
  2. baseball is no longer exclusively—possibly even primarily—a U.S. game;


    • it now is demonstrably clear that the Asian teams—at least Japan and Korea—play the game more skillfully, with greater dedication, passion, and aplomb;
  3. which means that baseball is now “of the world”;


    • meaning, in turn and by extrapolation, that the United States finds itself in the position of, say, Britain vis-a-vis football (soccer) in the 1960s or, say, Japan relative to judo in the 1990s;
      • which is to say that the game’s creator, its teacher, its distributor, is now in a position of having to share its product with many other, often more-talented, others; and
      • the U.S. may often find itself on the outside looking in, as well as clambering to catch up with its baseball rivals.
        • If—and here’s the catch—it even chooses to try;
  4. and . . . judging from this year’s results, the WBC is not going away—any time soon, if ever.


 



Now, for many, most of the above points are positive. It is only for a fan of the United States that one might find anything troubling. The message from this year’s WBC is that baseball is larger than the nation that created it and it is also apparently self-sustaining. Baseball is now truly global. It may not yet be embraced the way soccer is, with the sort of fanatic fan following that FIFA’s World Cup generates, but there is interest, activation, and enough engagement that the sponsors are talking about expanding the field for 2013. And, since it has now grown beyond U.S. borders, it is really no longer theirs. It is perfectly conceivable that if Americans don’t wrap their heads around that simple fact, they could very easily be rendered irrelevant. In or out?: the day might come where rivals wouldn’t much care one way or the other. Just as the final of 2006 was played between Cuba and Japan, and the final of 2009 pitted Korea against Japan, it may very well be the case that a U.S. team will never have a major role in determining the world’s best team. 


The other message that Americans may not much like is that they have yet to get that message. They keep clinging to phantom beliefs rather than the unsettling evidence before their eyes. After failing even to make the medal round in the inaugural Classic, they barely garnering a medal in the 2006 Olympics, and then finished fourth in this year’s WBC. Judging from the collective denial and excuse-making suffusing the press and blogoshere, it appears that they are waiting to awake from this extended nightmare to find, with relief, that the world still views their players as Gods and their stature intact—similar to how the Japanese treated the Bambino, himself, when he toured Japan in 1934: genuflecting on deeply bended knees. But such a scenario is simply not going to happen for the simple reason that there is no reason for it to. If any worship is going to occur, it will be at the altar of Ichiro or Iwakuma.


Exacerbating this fantasy is the belief that the U.S. is home to the best, most competitive, baseball league in the world. While this is still true, the companion reality is that that league is stocked with players—up to half now in the minor leagues—from other nations. More to the point, though, this is but a parallel universe for a game that, in—who knows, but somewhere between 12 to 25 to 43 years—will possibly


not

be the most competitive baseball environment. It is conceivable that—depending on how global economics play out and corporate underwriting evolves—the MLB may not even be the best league when that time arrives.


One of the outcomes of this new global order is that baseball is now the game it started out as, that it once was; back in a time before Babe Ruth and then, after, in the era prior to steroids. It is about precision hitting, sacrifice bunts and the stolen base, speed and well-drilled defensive coordination. It is about continual practice, and the accumulation of slight advantages, continually summed. These, apparently, are not elements that Americans care much about—or, at least, enough to dedicate themselves to; enough to devote hours and hours of time in order to match the new global standard.


And baseball now also looks and feels different than it only recently was. It is no longer a sport in which fans sit on their hands for extended periods; it is no longer a sport of leisurely pace, where patrons sit and sup a beer and lazily watch the parade of pitches. Instead, it is a sport in which fans stand as a collective body for three hours, bang noisy thunder sticks above their heads, pound drums, chant synchronized cheers, led by guys with national flags painted on their faces, and leggy song girls wearing two piece costumes that show some, in national colors.





What the WBC is saying is that baseball has changed. And it is speaking directly to the U.S. The WBC is saying: are you adaptable? Or are you, instead, a jealous lover; a spurned suitor? It is asking whether you are going to cling to the past as you wish it still was or the present as it actually is. It is asking whether you are willing to share the game enough to take it back. The WBC wants to know whether you are even willing to try. Or will you fold in amongst yourself simply because it would look uncool to have to try so hard and even uncooler if you actually failed—which, at this rate, given current conditions—is very truly possible.


One of the ironies of the WBC is that it is a kind of Frankenstein monster. It was started by American businessmen to advance their economic self-interest. By developing a world-wide talent pool, they felt that they could widen markets and also develop a deeper talent pool; they hoped that this, in turn, would improve the product, which would then generate even greater revenues. In doing so, however, they set in motion forces which appear to have damaged their own nation’s interests—certainly as measured by pride, reputation, and global perceptions.


It is, of course, little surprise that, as between nationalism and profits, the latter would win. After all, Frankenstein’s production can not help but rise up, even if (or, make that, especially when) all he is being asked to do is offer up a simple soft shoe. One’s creations rarely cooperating once they have a body of their own.


So Americans have no one to blame but themselves for placing themselves in the position where they have to adjust and change and grow. And fight to hold their own.


Whether they do or not, well . . . we’ll find out in time . . . possibly as soon as 2013.


 



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