Baseball occupies a niche in American society and culture. However, as the World Baseball Classic puts on display, we do not hold a monopoly over the sense of tradition and pride in our players and teams. Why is a strong international presence important to the sport of baseball?
The experience of the American baseball fan is rife with tradition. These traditions are part of our collective consciousness from the moment we walk through the turnstiles of the stadium. Watching them hose down and rake the infield, drinking my overpriced, flat, and sun-warmed beer, the smell of sunscreen, the seventh inning stretch, and dropping empty peanut shells on the concrete below me are all as much about baseball as the game itself.
As fans, we have managed to sort of abscond with the sport of baseball and turn it into a uniquely American experience. The first time that my grandmother -- who lived in Europe for most of her life -- prepared for a baseball game, it was a major ordeal. She had friends and family visiting and it was important that every detail was perfect. For her, it was absolutely vital that she capture the traditions and rituals that have transformed this sport into our national pastime.
Perhaps it is for this reason, then, that we as American baseball fans often ignore or downplay the presence of baseball internationally. Only relatively recently has the public awareness tuned in to the strong baseball presence in Japan, or the fact that there is a relatively fluid exchange of players between our two leagues. In Cuba, baseball has a strong historical tradition dating to the mid-1800s; it has been used to fund revolutions and has been a locus of national pride in the post-Revolution state.
Olympic baseball did absolutely nothing to reverse this ignorance of baseball's strong international presence. I, for one, was happy to see it eliminated from the games. However, the World Baseball Classic has the power to change this, and is evolving to become everything the Olympics fails to be -- an excellent exhibition of international baseball talent.
Of course, the WBC is not perfect in this regard. It has faced its share of valid criticism. Many of the top players of the game are absent. Although founded by the MLB with strong backing and heavy input from the MLB Players Association, it faces opposition from Major League teams themselves. There are legitimate concerns about the effect of a lengthened season on the health and sustained performance of the players who participate.
All of that taken into account, the WBC is a significant cultural event. It may not seem that important for us with our traditions, our songs, our ball-park food, and 162 chances to watch and root for our favorite team. What the WBC has is a chance for players with dreams and aspirations to have a stage that is otherwise closed off for them. It is fueling development of baseball programs across the globe. It lets the players we know and love display their own national pride. It is a boon for the MLB, both financially and in terms of publicity (a fact which is not insignificant.)
Also, who knew that the Italian team was this awesome?