David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Today, the World Baseball Classic.
Tomorrow, the world?
Bud Selig sounded like a James Bond villain late Friday night as he spoke about the "internationalization" of his sport, along with its "economic" and "sociological" potential. But the commissioner, like NFL counterpart Roger Goodell, has every reason to dream about global domination.
It's a big planet, with a large untapped audience and new generations to indoctrinate. The crowning achievement, in Selig's mind, would be to produce a "real" World Series, one that doesn't feature the champions of the American and National Leagues, but countries or regions.
"The thought of having a real World Series is breathtaking," Selig said. "I can't even imagine how big that would be. So this is very important. It has economic potential that is huge. But it has sociological potential, which to me is greater."
Selig brought up the U.S. versus Japan as a hypothetical, the same concept that Bobby Valentine, then the manager of Chiba Lotte, floated not long ago -- and was summarily dismissed. Japan probably was on Selig's mind because earlier that same day, Major League Baseball reported the television ratings for the WBC in Japan were astronomical.
According to the league's report, one of every three TVs in that country was tuned in to the Fukuoka bracket of the WBC, which featured Japan, Brazil, China and Cuba. The ratings there were higher than any other sporting event, including the 2012 Olympics.
Japan is a baseball-crazy nation, and the sport's origins there date as far back as the late 19th century, when it began gathering momentum in prep schools. These days, there are versions of baseball academies in dozens of countries, but the best way to generate momentum for the sport is for people to see it played -- in a winning fashion -- either at home or on an internationally televised world stage.
The WBC seems to be making inroads with that. Baseball superpowers such as Japan, South Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico already are well established. But the next wave looks to be coming from Europe, with the rise of the Netherlands and perhaps even Italy, which started this WBC a surprising 2-0 with victories over Mexico and Canada before Saturday night's game against the U.S.
With that popularity likely to escalate, Selig's vision could include overseas expansion -- MLB Europe or MLB Asia -- and those regions would produce their own champions that then would play in a world tournament, sort of like what the WBC is now, but played at the simultaneous conclusion of each season.
The WBC was started in 2006 as Selig's brainchild, and despite its trouble capturing attention in the U.S., the commissioner believes the tournament is having the desired effect overseas.
"This is our great vehicle to internationalize the sport," Selig said. "And in my judgment, if we do it right, you won't recognize this sport in a decade. I feel really good about things. It serves the purpose. The objective here is to internationalize the sport and use all the mechanisms that we can, and this is succeeding. It's succeeding very well."
Friday's U.S.-Mexico matchup drew 44,256 to Chase Field, with the majority of the crowd rooting for Mexico. It felt like the atmosphere for an MLB playoff game -- in some ways, even more so, with fans waving large flags and dueling chants. Better yet, in Selig's mind, it had the feel of a World Cup soccer match, which really is the example the commissioner is trying to emulate.
As for Europe, Selig said teams already have inquired about possibly opening their seasons there at some point.
"Five years ago, if you would have said that, people would have laughed," Selig said. "I'm not saying we're going to do it, but that's the potential now."
Take Italy, for example. While the country still is struggling to expand its baseball academies -- hopefully with increased financial aid from MLB -- the interest there is gradually growing. Bill Holmberg, Italy's pitching coach, talked Friday about how the team's opening win over Mexico finally carved out some space in the Italian newspapers, even if the first 30 pages are all about soccer.
"We just want to continue to draw attention to the fact that we believe baseball is marketable in Italy," said Mike Piazza, now in his second stint as the hitting coach for Italy's WBC team. "We think it's viable. We think there's a lot of upward growth. We can produce players over there. I'm convinced of it."
One such player, according to Holmberg, might be Martin Gasparini, a switch-hitting shortstop who is certain to be signed by an MLB club when he turns 16 later this summer. Another is Alberto Mineo, 18, a lefthanded-hitting catcher who already is in the Cubs' system.
With Italy, the talk has shifted from having the best postgame dinner spreads to playing legitimate, winning baseball. And once that can be established, the sport can take root in a nation's culture, which is Selig's M.O. as he eyes a seismic change in the international landscape.
"Just the difference between now and '06 is shocking," Selig said. "We have a lot more countries involved [in the WBC] and a lot more want to get involved. I won't put a time frame on it, but I believe in a decade."
23 - Runs scored by the Dominican Republic in a pair of WBC tune-up games against the Yankees and Phillies. The DR then throttled Venezuela, 9-3, helped by three RBIs from Robinson Cano, who played wearing bubble wrap.
6 - Scoreless innings, split between two starts, for Mike Pelfrey, who struck out five in Friday’s win over the Red Sox. Pelfrey apparently has his sinker working again. No word yet on whether his HPI is down (hand-licks per inning).
3 - Hours in the emergency room for Brewers GM Doug Melvin, whose hand was stung by a scorpion this week. Not to be outdone, Brian Cashman says he’ll swim the Everglades in a pork-chop suit for charity. Once his leg is out of the cast.
2 - Consecutive home runs hit by the Indians’ bash bros, Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. The back-to-back shots vs. the Giants triggered a dialogue not heard since Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott forgot where they parked.
0 - Innings played in the WBC by Mark Teixeira, who abruptly left Phoenix shortly before Team USA’s first exhibition due to a strained wrist suffered from hitting balls off a tee. Remember when this stuff only happened to the Mets?