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In 1903, the US’s two professional baseball associations, the National League and the American League, agreed that their respective champions would henceforth play each other in a season-ending match to be called the World Series.

It was a rather grandiose title to bestow on an event open only to American teams and concerning a sport unknown to most of humanity.Yet baseball was an American invention, and although it was not played exclusively in the US – it had by then become a fairly popular pastime in Canada, Cuba and Japan – Americans were the world’s finest players.

And in terms of teams, the World Series has remained a global competition in name only. Apart from two clubs with Canadian roots, but for two clubs based in Canada (one of which, the Montreal Expos, relocated to Washington DC last year), the event has been strictly limited to American sides. But, when it comes to players, where once the World Series featured only Americans, now it includes a sizeable contingent of foreign-born men.

This reflects a larger trend: nearly one-third of all Major League Baseball players now hail from countries other than the US, the result of a baseball boom in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia. The game is thriving overseas and American supremacy is no longer unquestioned.

To capitalise on the former, the league decided in 2004 to put America’s supremacy to the test by staging a truly global competition called the World Baseball Classic. To modest expectations, the inaugural WBC gets under way next Friday at the Tokyo Dome.

Sixteen national sides are taking part in the 18-day round-robin tournament, which will make additional stops in San Juan, Orlando, Phoenix and Anaheim before culminating in a one-game title match in San Diego on March 20, at which point baseball will be in a bit of a quandary. By tradition, the team that wins the World Series is known as the world champions. But what will the Classic winners be, if not the world champions?

How the unofficial designations are sorted out will ultimately be determined by how well this first international baseball competition fares. If the WBC proves to be a flop, it will certainly not be for lack of publicity; both the league and ESPN, the television network airing the games, have been on a marketing blitz for months.

The Classic has also benefited from free publicity from a geopolitical controversy. In December, the Bush administration denied permission for the Cuban team to take part in games on American soil, which would have in effect barred the nation from competing. The decision provoked a furore, with Puerto Rico threatening to withdraw as a host site and the International Baseball Federation threatening to revoke its sanction of the event. Washington finally relented after the Castro government promised that any profits earned by the Cuban team would be donated to victims of hurricane Katrina.

Perhaps helped by the rumpus, tickets sales for the WBC are reported to be good, with the two semi-finals and the championship game already sold out.

This is despite the fact that players have shown little enthusiasm for the tournament. While several stars are competing, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, a number are not. The list of refuseniks includes Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Lance Berkman, Andy Pettitte, Tim Hudson, Hideki Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi and possibly Manny Ramirez, and organisers are bracing for more withdrawals as the first pitch nears.

The lack of interest is hardly surprising: March is the month devoted to spring training and, with the players having just returned from the winter break and preparing for a season that will last until October and possibly beyond, there is reluctance to risk injury on an event that at this point looks to be merely an exhibition.

Although the WBC will involve at most just eight games and includes rules designed to protect those million-dollar arms and legs – pitchers are limited to 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second and 95 thereafter, and games will be called if a team is leading by 15 or more runs after five innings or 10 or more runs after seven – this has done little to assuage concerns.

And it is not just the players who are unmoved by appeals to patriotism. George Steinbrenner, the acerbic owner of the New York Yankees, voiced his displeasure during a brief scrum with reporters last week. When baseball commissioner Bud Selig put the WBC to a vote in 2004, the Yankees pointedly abstained, and Steinbrenner’s opinion has not softened. “We don’t like it that well,” he said. “If a player gets hurt, he’s risking a lot.”

Not wishing to defy the boss, several Yankees, including Matsui, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, are sitting out the tournament.

Undeterred, the league has scheduled a second Classic for 2009 and a third for 2013, with the intent of making it a quadrennial event like soccer’s World Cup and the Olympics. Indeed, the WBC is seen as filling the void that will be left when baseball is dropped from the Olympics after the 2008 summer games.

Of far greater importance to MLB executives, to Selig and his colleagues, the tournament is likely to boost the league’s Major League Baseball’s international profile, which has arguably not kept pace with the sport’s growing popularity abroad.

Robert DuPuy, league president, gently disputes that claim. While acknowledging that Europe remains a tough market – “we have not made significant inroads and we hope that it will be our next frontier” – DuPuy insists the league has not been slow to capitalise on the strong interest in Latin America and Asia. “Are we satisfied with our international growth? Yes. Do we want more? Yes.”

There seems to be much room for additional growth. As of last year, 30 per cent of all MLB players were foreign-born; add in minor league players and the figure jumps to an astonishing 44 per cent. Yet international operations account for only about 5 per cent of the league’s revenues.

Contrast that with the National Basketball Association. Although the NBA has also seen a sharp rise in foreign-born players, they still make up only 15 per cent of the league total. Yet, thanks to an effective global growth strategy, that has been breathtaking in its ambition and spectacular in its results, the NBA reportedly earns about 20 per cent of its revenues abroad. Nearly half the visitors to the league’s official web site, NBA.com, log on from outside the US.

From an American perspective, the NBA has perhaps been too good at cultivating foreign interest in basketball; at the Athens Olympics, the US team, despite a roster of NBA stars, finished a humiliating third. But Major League Baseball might actually be well served by a US defeat in the inaugural Classic. Were the Americans to lose, it would almost certainly add to baseball’s popularity abroad while leaving US players and fans hungry for revenge in 2009.

Could it happen? Even at full strength, the US team would have faced a stiff challenge from the Dominican Republic and possibly also the Venezuelan, Japanese and Cuban sides, and having lost more players to injury (or lack of interest) than any other team, the Americans are presumably that much more vulnerable.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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