Baseball Around the World

Globalization has been one of the business buzzwords of the last couple of decades. One can rarely get past the front page of a newspaper without reading about how such-and-such a company is opening a new factory in China or has hired a bevy of software programmers in India.

Our national pastime is no different. Back in the dog days of the early 20th century, baseball was a quintessential American sport, but now it is a polyglot’s playground. Practically every franchise sports players from all corners of the American continent; Asian imports like Dice-K and Ichiro have become the new megastars of the game; even Antipodeans like Chris Snelling and Phil Stockman are entering the fray, albeit on the periphery.

With the Red Sox and Yankees battling it out over the right to reign in China no longer does Toronto seem like a token foreign outpost. No, as the World Baseball Classic proved last year, baseball is becoming increasingly international. Although the timber and horsehide combo is unlikely to challenge the pig bladder as the world’s most popular piece of team sporting equipment anytime soon, one can easily dream of it vaulting into second place.

There was no better demonstration of this than the recent announcement that several ex-MLB players were helping to start a new league in Israel of all places. That is the inspiration for a review of the state of baseball outside the big, bad ol’ US of A. In this column, I briefly examine the history and state of the game in four countries. Later on in the year we’ll pop back to this subject and look at baseball in some other countries.

Israel

League Inauguration: 2006
Number of teams: 6
Famous Players: Leon Feingold (whaddya mean you haven’t heard of him?)
Attendance: Estimated at 45,000 in year one

Is there a more unlikely place to start a new baseball league? The Sudan, maybe? Goodness, even the heavy American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan makes either of those two countries a shade more likely to host a a few innings of ball. Well, a couple of Mondays ago it was announced that the Modi’in Miracles will host the Petach Tikva Pioneers on June 24 to launch Israel’s six-team, 45-game baseball season.

The bar for success hasn’t been set too high—the target is for just 1,000 fans a game to show up and the expected audience is American expatriates. Let’s hope and pray that that doesn’t act as a magnet for some of the more undesirable activity that has been going on in the region.

Safety concerns aside, there is no doubt that the cast list assembled by the IBL (Israel Baseball League) is reasonably impressive. Here is an excerpt from the recent press release:

The league has enlisted three high-profile Jewish ex-major leaguers as managers: Ken Holtzman, the winningest Jewish pitcher in baseball history with 174 victories, including two no-hitters; New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, pro baseball’s first designated hitter; and Art Shamsky, a member of the New York “Miracle” Mets that won the 1969 World Series …

… Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, will serve as the IBL’s director of baseball operations. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is on the advisory board, as is his daughter, Milwaukee Brewers owner Wendy Selig-Prieb …

… On the field, the league will provide opportunities for players like Leon Feingold to continue or revive their baseball dreams …

… With a heavy American influence it isn’t too far a stretch to imagine the odd Jewish major leaguer moving to Israel to play out the twilight years of his career to try to give Middle Eastern baseball a boost.

It appears as though MLB is keen to kick start baseball in this war-torn region. As the press release says, who knows, perhaps some of the older Jewish players will want to ply their trade in the Middle East at some point. Hmm … maybe not: a potential sticking point for any aged major leaguer looking to make the jump is that the annual salary cap is a miserly $45,000 per team. Let’s face it, you’d be lucky to get a couple of swings of the bat by A-Rod for that.

If successful (and that is a big if), the Israeli model of an MLB-backed league with a couple of committed heavy hitters behind the scenes could be adopted elsewhere. Anything to boost the global nature of the sport is welcome, and with the 2009 WBC not too far away wouldn’t it be great if Israel could find some useful ball players to trot on to the diamond for that?

China

League Inauguration: 2002
Number of teams Six (four originally)
Famous Players: Harry Kingman (yes, it’s true)
Attendance: 10,000 a year

It may be a surprise but baseball in the Eastern Empire has been around in one form or another for over 100 years: In 1863 the Shanghai Baseball Club was founded. By the early 20th century both the emperor and various universities got in on the act and baseball became a fledgling sport before being firmly stamped out during the Cultural Revolution.

It wasn’t until 2002 that professional baseball made a return to China when the Chinese Baseball League (CBL or 中国棒球联赛 for those fluent in Cantonese) was established.

The first season, in 2002, was not even a month long and culminated in Tianjin Lions overcoming the Beijing Tigers in a one-game “World Series” playoff. Since then the Tigers have established the Chinese equivalent of the Yankees dynasty by winning three of the subsequent four championships.

The Chinese are making a big push to build from the grassroots and over the next few years hope to develop some serious baseball talent. The CBL has started an initiative termed “Swing for the Wall,” which is a program to get kids interested in the game. To further develop prospects the CBL also established the Hope Stars, a team that specifically comprises the best of Chinese under-21 talent. It is from here that the CBL expects to develop its first major league uber-star.

In fact not only does China want to be the next baseball talent factory, major league teams are also battling to establish their fan base in the world’s most populous country. The Red Sox and Yankees are going hammer and tongs against each other to corner the market. You can guarantee that the first Chinese superstar will attract an intense bidding war that could make the Matsuzaka shenanigans look like a playground tiff.

With the Olympics coming to town in 2008 international baseball will finally come to China, though unfortunately for the popularity of the game no major league players will be hopping over the Pacific to play.

China is unlikely to be the chosen home for many American baseball stars in the coming years as the economics are anything less than compelling. Games are free, there is little advertising, average player salaries are just $200 a month and even the biggest games rarely attract more than 100 fans. There is a long way to go before the country can claim that the level of interest in baseball approaches that in other parts of the Pacific Rim.

However, baseball in China is taking tentative baby steps. The national team recently secured bronze in the Asian Championships by defeating the mighty Korea. With north of a billion possible players, China has the potential to be a baseball powerhouse.

Japan

League Inauguration: 1934
Number of team: Twelve
Famous Players: Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka
Attendance: 20-22 million a year

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about international baseball without mentioning the Land of the Rising Sun, which is without a doubt the game’s second home. Although baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American professor working at Tokyo University, it wasn’t until the 1920s that professional baseball first established itself in the country.

After a few spluttering starts, it was in 1934 that the rather catchy sounding Greater Japan Tokyo Baseball Club was established (now called Yomiuri Giants) and became the marker for the rise of Japanese baseball. A couple of years later another five clubs were formed and the Japanese Baseball League was founded and grew in popularity over the next half decade.

After a brief interlude for the war, the league resumed and a proliferation of teams saw it split into two divisions as baseball marched into the hearts and minds of Eastern fandom. The two leagues are the Central and Pacific, which fall under the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) umbrella. Over the next few decades baseball firmly established itself as the national sport.

The Japanese are a fickle bunch though and the coming of J-League soccer in the early 1990s has seen a slow drift of fans away from the diamond. This ultimately led to a series of financial crises in the game that afflicted all the top-clubs. Add in a pinch of corruption and economic woe and it wasn’t surprising that teams teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

That was concurrent with the rising appreciation of Japanese players among major league teams as Hideo Nomo was persuaded to hop over the ocean to play for the Dodgers. This was controversial at the time as Nomo had to “retire” from Japanese baseball before signing with the Dodgers (this resulted in the creation of the posting system we see today).

A couple of Cy Young calibre seasons later and American fans were suddenly aware of the array of talent squirreled away in the NPB. Since then there has been a constant flow of ball players to the American leagues. This has created a vicious cycle that has proved hard to break: As more talent rushes for the exit, less money comes into the domestic game.

Despite these challenges Japanese baseball has remained strong and the country continues to churn out top quality players. Indeed they were good enough to clinch the inaugural World Baseball Classic last spring when now mega-star Dice-K pitched them to the title. World baseball needs a strong Japan so it’d be a shame if the NPB effectively became another Minor League conveyor belt. The MLB owes it to the global game to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Cuba

League Inauguration: 1878
Number of teams: 16
Famous Players: Jose Contreras, Livan Hernandez
Attendance: N/A

There is a delicious irony that despite being at political loggerheads for the past 50 years both Cuba and America share the same national pastime. Although given how much history there is between the two countries perhaps it should be less of a surprise.

Baseball came to Cuba in the 1860s and Nemisio Guillo is first credited with bringing bat and ball to Tobacco Alley. Soon after Spanish rulers banned baseball, as the local populace seemed to prefer it to bullfighting (not difficult), and before you knew it the sport became a beacon of freedom and hope.

Soon after, in 1878 to be precise, the Cuban League came to fruition with just three teams playing four games each. The inaugural match-up was a corker with La Habana defeating Almendares 21-20.

Although it was an all-white affair originally, the sport continued to grow and was soon attracting players of all color as semi-professionalism took hold. Black players were admitted in 1900 and Cuban baseball started to attract some of the best players from the American Negro Leagues. Cuban teams would play and hold their own against the best that MLB had to offer. Indeed Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torriente were outstanding ball players who were elected to the hall of fame in the 2006 influx. By the 1920s, the level of play in the Cuban League was superb, as Negro League stars like Oscar Charleston and John Henry Lloyd spent their winters playing in Cuba.

It is surprising that the rise of Communism didn’t put an end to baseball in Cuba. That’s because Castro is a huge fan of the sport. Indeed there were even rumors (wholly unsubstantiated) that he tried out for the Yankees in the late 1940s.

In the 1960s the Cuban National League started up and is now a schedule of 90 games that runs from November through to April with 16 teams in four leagues. Although it is strictly amateur (Castro banned professional baseball) the quality of play is high and as a result Cuba regularly mops up at all amateur baseball tourneys, such as the Olympics. Even though baseball has amateur status the top players are subsidized and receive a wage of sorts.

The Cuban game is slowly starting to emerge from the shadows and embrace the world stage. In 1999 the Orioles played the Cuban national team in Havana to a jam-packed stadium. It was the first time a major league team had stepped on Cuban soil since 1959, and the O’s ended up winning 3-2 in 11 thrilling innings. Cuba also gave a healthy account of itself at the inaugural WBC and seems set to be a key protagonist as the global game expands.

There has been remarkably little defection of players to the USA although since the early 1990s a number of Cuban exiles have become high profile major leaguers. Some of the bigger names include: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Contreras, Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez and Rey Ordonez. If Cuba becomes more open in the coming years the sport and the talent will likely proliferate.

Jetting Home

So, what have we learned after our 24,000-mile trot across the globe? There are a couple of takeaways. First, is that MLB remains by far and away the most competitive arena for showcasing baseball talent; irrespective of their WBC win, any claim that Japan can lay to that mantle has all but disappeared with the ongoing exodus of top talent across the Pacific.

The other thing is that slowly but surely baseball is being exported around the world. The lessons from Japan and Cuba show that baseball can take root and grow in a new country. China is almost certainly the next major league breeding ground and with no real national sport to speak of there is an opportunity for baseball to waltz away with the crown.

The Commissioner’s Office has a responsibility for the globalization of baseball. Wouldn’t it be great if baseball were like soccer and became a truly international sport? That is a long long way off but the seeds of hope have been sown. Let’s hope the future harvest is fruitful.

References & Resources
Wikipedia and Google were both invaluable resources. I was also suprised to find quite a few blogs tracking baseball outside the USA. Have a hunt around—it is amazing what you’ll find.

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