Talk to Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or Dan Boyle and they will tell you that bringing home an Olympic gold medal in hockey is almost on par with winning the Stanley Cup. International competition is even more meaningful in soccer as the world stops spinning for 32 days as 32 nations compete for the sport’s ultimate prize.
But does anyone care that Team USA is taking the field Friday for its first game in the World Baseball Classic, our national pastime’s version of the World Cup?
On the surface, the idea of an international baseball tournament sounds riveting. Sixteen teams competing for 17 days on three different continents, culminating in a championship game at AT&T Park on March 19 — what isn’t there to like?
The great American game is now an international phenomenon, with foreign-born players accounting for 28.4 percent of Opening Day rosters in Major League Baseball last year. Shouldn’t showdowns between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, Japan and Cuba inspire our passion?
Unlike soccer and hockey, though, baseball just doesn’t seem to work in the international format. The first obstacle is the calendar: there isn’t a right time of year for this event. As it stands now, the tournament is held during spring training, so you aren’t seeing anyone’s peak performance. Pitch counts are limited, so the contests actually feel like exhibitions. You don’t see the dazzling pitchers’ duels that define October baseball, and many of the superstars skip the competition to avoid injury.
But what are the alternatives? In hockey, they halt the NHL season in February so the best players can compete in the Olympics. But that wouldn’t work for baseball. With a 162-game season, there is no wiggle room for a three-week suspension, and a tournament after the season in November isn’t feasible.
The WBC is also going head-to-head with the end of the college basketball season in March — not the best time to capture an American audience’s attention.
Unfortunately, baseball just doesn’t lend itself to brief, three-week competitions, either. There’s a reason why they play marathon seasons and best-of-seven game playoff series. The Kansas City Royals can always beat the New York Yankees once; with streaks and slumps, baseball requires large sample sizes. A sprint isn’t going to be able to determine the best team.
International baseball also lacks another important ingredient: tradition. Would Olympic hockey be as compelling without the Miracle on Ice, the 1972 Summit Series and the Canada Cups featuring the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux? Countries have been vying for the World Cup since 1930; we can’t expect baseball players to compete with intensity without the history that gives an international contest its flavor.
Despite these shortcomings, I’m looking forward to watching the final round at AT&T Park later this month. I attended the first two World Baseball Classics and sincerely enjoy the multicultural experience it brings to the ballpark. While Americans may be preoccupied with other sports, the WBC gives ethnic communities a rare opportunity to root for their nation’s heroes on U.S. soil.
The baseball might lack the drama of October, but the event gives us another chance to celebrate California’s diversity.