Here is a message for all those players, managers and GMs who view the World Baseball Classic as a nuisance:
Get over yourselves, and think about your sport.
Yes, the WBC is an inconvenience, a disruption to spring training, an extension of a baseball calendar that already is too long.
But the benefits are so vast, and the long-term importance so significant, the tournament should be embraced, not scorned.
The bigger this thing is, the greater the impact. And while the impact in the U.S. remains minimal — thanks in part to the refusal of many top American stars to participate — the WBC is breathing life into the sport internationally, giving baseball a global reach.
The elimination of baseball as an Olympic sport after 2008 left the WBC — which begins Friday with first-round games in Japan and Taiwan — as the biggest event on the international calendar by far.
“To globalize the game, you need events that will continue to motivate countries to get better,” said Robert Eenhoorn, a former major leaguer who is the director of the Netherlands team. “The WBC is this event.
“Everything starts with a dream and the dream should be to become the second biggest sport in the world (after soccer). The dream for every kid should be to play in the WBC for his country. The WBC is the catalyst to this dream.”
And beyond that, a necessary reality.
A number of national federations, including USA Baseball, experienced a reduction in funding after the Olympics dropped baseball. The money those federations now receive from the WBC is in some cases greater than the amounts that their governments provided, according to Paul Archey, baseball’s senior vice-president of international business operations.
The WBC distributed nearly $25 million in prize money from its first two tournaments, of which more than half went to game development programs, Archey said. The 2013 tournament is expected to distribute about $15 million more.
Everyone in the sport will benefit if a greater number of countries stand a chance of producing the next Yu Darvish or Yoenis Cespedes.
Without the Olympics, there is no other way.
“If you don’t do things like the World Baseball Classic, development goes away,” Archey said. “You lose interest from the kids, you lose government support. There are players from over 44 countries in professional baseball. Without this tournament, that will not continue to happen.”
A common refrain in the U.S. is that “nobody cares” about the WBC. The numbers reflecting fan interest indicate otherwise — and keep in mind, the tournament only has been played twice.
Total attendance for the 2009 WBC was more than 800,000. The tournament final between Japan and Korea was the sixth-most watched sporting event on television that year, drawing more than 82 million viewers worldwide, according to Eurodata.
Even here, in the ho-hum U.S., ESPN’s ratings increased 13 percent from ’06. Japan’s semifinal victory over Team USA drew an average audience of 2.78 million viewers, exceeding the average for every NBA telecast on the network in 2008-09.
Now consider the impact of the WBC on a number of participating countries:
*China: Prior to the 2009 WBC, baseball had little television exposure in China, Archey said. All of that changed with China’s victory over Chinese Taipei.
Baseball now has 11 different TV partners in the country, and also sponsors two year-round academies and a youth development program in schools.
*Netherlands. A new park under construction near the Amsterdam airport will seat more than 15,000 and is expected to become the best baseball facility in Europe.
Eenhoorn said the goal is to host a qualifier for the next WBC and even major-league games.
“It is something that I would have not imagined to be possible 10 years ago,” Eenhoorn said. “But when you become more visible and people see what you talk about, they start to believe.”
*Brazil. Baseball trended in the top 10 on Twitter in Brazil after the national team, managed by Barry Larkin, beat Panama in the WBC qualifier to advance to the main tournament.
“Baseball, I will guess, had never been even in the top 100 in Brazil before that game,” Archey said.
MLB also is working with the Brazilian equivalent of the Boys and Girls Club to start programs across the country, beginning with 20 facilities in the nation’s largest city, Sao Paolo.
*Australia. A mercy-rule victory by Australia over Mexico in Mexico City during the 2009 WBC helped trigger momentum for the re-launching of the Australian Baseball League.
New ballparks are under construction in Canberra and Adelaide, and almost 90 Australians are professionals in North America, including a record eight in the majors last season.
*New Zealand. After the country’s participation in November’s qualifiers in Taiwan, interest in baseball “shot up dramatically,” according to Ryan Flynn, chief executive officer of Baseball New Zealand.
“We’ve risen from an unranked baseball nation to 29th in the IBAF (International Baseball Federation) rankings, which has caused many people to stand up and take notice,” Flynn said.
“Our brightest young prospects have now been seen by MLB teams, as well as leading NCAA colleges across America, and college coaches and scouts are now contacting us about signing our young talent.”
On and on it goes.
The WBC helped revive professional baseball not only in Australia, but also Korea and Panama. League attendance in Korea has more than doubled since the first tournament in 2006, Archey said. The largest stadium in Panama City was the site for one of four qualifier pools for this year’s event.
The more some of the developing baseball countries play, the better the competition they face, the more the talent gap shrinks.
“When I look at our talent on the field this time, compared to the one in 2006, there is a tremendous difference. And the next one probably will show more progress again,” the Netherlands’ Eenhoorn said.
So really, the U.S. loses on every level when its stars decline to participate. The reluctance of aces such as Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and David Price is understandable, given the fragile nature of pitching. But position players such as Buster Posey and Prince Fielder? And youngsters such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper? C’mon.
The WBC isn’t a nuisance. It’s an opportunity.
Everyone needs to put aside their self-interest and contribute to the greater good of the sport.