World Cup 2006: A Look Ahead

MLB, NPB (Japan’s professional league) and KBO (South Korea’s professional league) now appear to be quite close to setting up a baseball World Cup tournament to be played in the early spring of 2006. Currently the aim is for a 16-country (wow!) tournament to be hosted by MLB and the MLBPA, so that it would likely be 100% in North America, likely in southern and domed stadiums.

Previously, the three countries had aimed for a spring 2005 tournament in Japan, but Japanese owners didn’t want that kind of competition for their own product so close to the Japanese regular season (out of fear of making their own product look bad, perhaps?). At any rate, those objections seem to have evaporated with the shift of venue, and Japan is now apparently on board. The tournament is not yet finalized, but is tentatively being called the “Super World Cup”.

With hopes for an announcement in the near future, it’s time to look at what such a tournament should hopefully look like, and what it will mean.

A 16-country tournament is large but not unprecedented; the current “World Cup” run by the IBAF (amateur baseball’s world governing body) has had 16 teams for the past four tournaments going back to 1994 in Nicaragua. (2003′s tournament in Cuba had only 15 teams after the Bahamas pulled out). But because the IBAF is dominated by countries with fledgling baseball programs, the World Cup roster is not typically as strong as it could be as lesser regions grab a large number of spots. The 2003 qualifiers included not only the Bahamas, but France, China, Italy, and Russia (while the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Puerto Rico failed to qualify). The current plan appears to be to freeze out the IBAF completely, a sensible position to take given its traditional (but slowly changing) antipathy to the professional game.

Ideally, a Super World Cup would largely be by invitation only, with perhaps two qualifying tournaments to decide the final two spots. From the Eastern Hemisphere, Japan, Australia, Taiwan and Korea would obviously be invited. The Netherlands have consistently proven to be the strongest team in Europe (thanks mostly to its baseball-playing Caribbean colonies) and deserve a nod. From the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic are obvious choices. Venezuela is easily the strongest country in South America, while Panama and Nicaragua are the class of Central America. Add the three North American countries (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) and you have fourteen invitees, leaving the rest of the world to play off for two spots (one in the Western Hemisphere and one in the East). Minimizing the amount of qualifying to be done will also minimize the reliance on amateur talent, since MLB clubs will be understandably reluctant to let their players and prospects play in qualifying tournaments. For countries such as the Dominican Republic, with extremely strong and deep professional talent but little in the way of amateurs, holding a qualifying tournament cannot help but weaken the field for the big show.

It is imperative, in my view, that all of the strongest teams be invited. With the cream of MLB’s talent pool taking part, the potential for dull, boring blowouts becomes even more a threat than it is at the amateur level. As few weak sisters as possible should be allowed to compete. You could even just name the last two participants (say, Colombia and Italy) and dispense with qualifying altogether, making the process neater and maybe, just a touch stronger overall.

Cuba represents an interesting problem. Fidel Castro’s longtime opposition to “slave baseball”, his fanciful term for professional baseball in North America, means that a Cuban team would likely not participate in such a tournament if it were held in the United States (the dictator’s shaky grasp of economics must be responsible for the fact that the Japanese professional leagues are not similarly treated). Certainly, an invitation should be proffered to Cuba’s fine, world-beating amateur side. But if such an invitation were not taken up, I would hope that (as the IBAF will hopefully not be involved in setting rules for the tournament) a Cuban team could still be fielded, using both defectors and Cuban-Americans under the leadership of someone like ex-Jays manager Carlos Tosca. Call them the Cuban Selects, perhaps. Of course, it is possible that possible retaliation against family members in Cuba by the Communist government would make such a venture impossible, but a man can dream.

No discussions have yet taken place on the form a World Cup is to take. With 16 teams, two obvious possibilities present themselves. Four initial groups of four, or two initial groups of eight, with the first system making for a shorter tournament. But a two-week tournament, with seven round-robin games, a single-elimination semi-final and a best two-of-three final, is not out of the question. An even more intriguing possibility is a straight knockout tournament; teams seeded 1 through 16 and playing four best-two-out-of-three matches to decide a champion.

One possible arrangement of teams, using four seeding pools and four groups of four:

Group A         Group B        Group C         Group D

U.S.A.          Japan          Puerto Rico     Dominican Republic
(South) Korea   Venezuela      Cuban Selects   Canada
Mexico          Panama         Taiwan          Australia
Colombia        Italy          Netherlands     Nicaragua

Then the first-placed teams play the second-placed teams in the opposite groups in quarterfinals, the winners playing off in semifinals, and then a final. All playoff series would be best-two-out-of-three, making for a maximum of twelve games over a space of fourteen days. Or all the series could be single elimination, making for a much shorter tournament that could be wrapped up in nine days with plenty of off days.

Alternatively, you could lump groups A and C together, and B and D together, and play a seven-game round-robin with the top two teams from each qualifying for semifinals.

The advantage of a long round-robin and/or multi-game elimination rounds is obvious from MLB’s point of view. The Olympic Qualifying tournament for Athens, in which a strong U.S. team was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Mexico well short of an Olympic berth, was a disaster for the U.S. and something that MLB will be keen to avoid. As the strongest team in the field (though with the Dominican Republic and Japan nipping at its heels) MLB will likely want the U.S. to have the easiest possible path to the finals, and two-out-of-three elimination rounds, instead of single games, is the way to do that. At the very least, a large number of games for “Team USA” will be important to the financial success of the tournament – so a long first round – guaranteeing seven, and probably eight, games for the U.S. – could accomplish the same thing.

Ultimately, such a tournament would gain most of all from its repetition down the line. World Cup tournaments in soccer, and to a lesser degree in hockey, have benefited most from their historical lineage and continuity. Baseball is late to the party here, but there is no reason why a successful 2006 tournament couldn’t produce at least sufficient excitement to get fans looking ahead to 2008 or 2010. The tournament could be a money-spinner for MLB and the MLBPA; instead of meaningless spring training games, players could be locked in the highest level of competition imaginable, and the profits from sold-out big-league stadiums would loom large. (Indeed, why not make it every two years?) The tournament would draw the baseball world closer together; fans in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela would finally get to see their best players representing something that is theirs, instead of something American. Players from Asia would get a stage in North America on which to perform. And finally, in countries where the baseball audience can be either small or fickle (such as Korea, or Mexico, or the European countries) the easily digestible spectacle of top-flight international competition could – at least eventually – bring people closer to the game.

And finally, we’ll hopefully get to see the U.S.A. versus the Dominican Republic, for all the marbles, the way it was meant to be.

Over the offseason, I will be looking at some of the possible squads for the 2006 World Cup. I’m currently planning to look at ten countries, two at a time – the U.S., Japan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Panama, and a Cuban Selects team of U.S.-based Cuban players. If readers have any insights into who would make good selections for these teams (or others in the field – the Netherlands have a very interesting side), I’d welcome their e-mails (
) and your arguments will be quoted extensively as I sketch what these teams might look like.

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