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Friday 22 July 2016

The Globalization of Baseball

As I write this, pro baseball player Ichiro Suzuki is on the verge of getting his 3,000th big-league hit*.

There's a big asterisk there because Ichiro has nearly 3,000 hits in the North American leagues (Major League Baseball, MLB), but has about 4,300 if you include his hits in the professional Japanese leagues (Nippon Pro Baseball, NPB) as well. Ichiro came from Japan when that was a lot rarer, and perhaps at an older age (27), so it's hard to compare him fairly to players anywhere, other to say he's a global all-star.

Baseball is a global game, and it's becoming more international quickly. Here are some trends I've seen that show increasing ties between baseball in North America and the rest of the world. My hope is for more MLB exhibition games overseas, and eventually overseas inter-league play, especially with Nippon Pro Baseball.

1. The World Baseball Classic

In 2006, 2009, and again in 2013, the USA hosted a world tournament modeled after the FIFA World Cup. The tournaments themselves are a sign that international baseball is strong enough to continue without the support of the Olympics, but the results are an even stronger sign. The team from Japan won the 2006 and 2009 WBCs and placed third in 2013. Cuba won second place in 2006. The USA has not yet placed higher than fourth.

The next World Baseball Classic will be in 2017.

In 2006, the team from Cuba was only allowed entry to the United States because other countries refused to play without them.

2. The end of the Cuban embargo

Earlier this year, the United States officially ended its cold war remnant embargo on Cuba. Cuba has been a source of baseball talent for many years, but in order to play for MLB during the embargo, a player would need to defect to the United States, leaving their old life behind completely. Most of Cuba's world-class superstars may have already done this before the embargo was removed, but what about the ones that could have been professional baseball players, but didn't invest the training time because of the risks and costs involved in defection?

We will see many more Cuban professional players, but it will take a couple of years.

3. Twenty-20 Cricket

Until 2005, professional cricket matches lasted either eight hours, or up to five days. The Twenty20 format of cricket changed that by introducing a three-hour game. This change makes individual cricket matches a lot more appealing to North American sports fans, whom are already used to Football, Soccer, Hockey, and Baseball games which all last about three hours including non-play time.

There are substantial differences between cricket and baseball, but the skill sets are related. Both games focus their action on a single ball thrower and ball hitter, with the remaining play happening among the fielders (9 in baseball, 11 in cricket).

With time and television, this could lead to flow of talent between the sports, with amateur players trying to increase their play time and career prospects by being involved in both sports.

4. The precedent of Inter-League Play

Major League Baseball is split into two leagues of 15 teams each. This is a more meaningful break than that between conferences in hockey or basketball. The two leagues in MLB play by different sets of rules. There are several minor differences, and one big one: the designated hitter. In the American League (which includes the Toronto Blue Jays), there is a designated hitter whose only role is to bat. In the National League, there is no designated hitter, and the pitcher (thrower, like a bowler), must also bat.

Despite this rule difference, American and National League teams play against each other regularly. The game is played by the rules of the home team. Play between MLB and Japanese NPB would likely work the same way, and having the precedent of playing by the home team's rules makes that inter-league play simpler to establish.

5. The video appeal system

According to [2], the Japanese style is for umpires to huddle together and make a call through consensus; American decisions are made by the official in the best physical place to witness the event in question.

Starting in the 2016 season in MLB, when a call is appealed, the video footage is reviewed by a central panel of officials in New York and an ultimate decision is made there. This new system  making the most important or contentious calls are made by consensus. This reduces the distance between the two styles.

6. The Posting System

Since 1998, MLB and NPL have used an agreement called the Posting System regarding NPL players leaving Japan and playing in MLB instead. The merits or weaknesses of this system are beyond me, but at least it sets a precedent of coordination between to the two league systems. Ichiro was the second player to join the MLB under the Posting System. See [3] for more.

7. Interleague play with Major League Soccer

European soccer has lots of interaction between leagues. The best of each of the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga, and others earn places in the UEFA Champion's League. Back in North America, Major League Soccer (MLS) has been more isolated, but that is changing.

There is a growing trend of star players from UEFA teams playing in MLS when their best years are over. They're still competitive in MLS, and names like Kaka and David Beckham bring in crowds.

There are also more games happening between MLS teams and those from the English Premier League. This month, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC tied 2-2 against Crystal Palace, and the Seattle Sounders beat West Ham 3-0.

Any commercial success from these matches is a signal to Major League Baseball that they could do the same, and that there is fan interest in the overseas matches.

[1] Japanese Baseball Rules and Customs

[2] On the cultural distances in baseball

[3] The Posting System, which describes how players are transferred between leagues

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