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March 25, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Requiem for a real World Series

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Don’t forget Geoff Baker Live! coming up at 11 a.m.
Watching Ichiro hoist the World Baseball Classic championship trophy for Team Japan the other night allowed an old thought to creep across my mind with more conviction than ever.
It was shortly after the 2002 season, upon watching a team of touring MLB All-Stars get taken to the limit by a Japanese All-Star squad — dropping the first three games before rebounding to win the next four — that I asked newly-crowned AL Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske what he thought about the possibility of a true World Series. You know, where the World Series champion from MLB would take on the Japanese title winner.
Hinske had just come back from Japan. He gave a diplomatic answer more or less akin to “No way in hell, buddy!” and moved on to another topic.
Over the years, the biggest argument I’ve heard in opposing such a series is that the Japanese squads would lack the pitching depth to make it a competitive venture. That their ability to compete on an all-star level, as we’ve seen with similar MLB tours over the years and the past two WBC tournaments, would vanish in a club-against-club format.
A nice argument. Tough to dispute because we’ll never actually get to put it to the test.
It’s the same sort of argument we used to hear back in the old NFL-AFL days. Remember life before Broadway Joe and the Jets? We were told that the AFL was an inferior league and that the idea of a Super Bowl was a joke. In fact, the first two were jokes. But not the third. And not from that day onward.
So, could the same thing happen in baseball?
Could a Japanese league many on this side of the planet liken to AAAA baseball actually be able to compete with the best teams from over here?
My argument, as a Canadian, has always been that, if my country can beat the U.S. in international baseball tournaments, anything can happen. Unlike Japan. Canada does not have a rabid baseball culture, nor the population base capable of supplying teams that can compete consistently well with the U.S. In theory, anyhow. But they still hold their own in one-on-one showdowns. Could they win a best-of-seven series? Probably not. But it’s a different story in Japan.
Japanese baseball culture is geared towards talent development at a young age. And that means, it’s a system capable of adjustments in a rather quick amount of time. Not the case anymore in the U.S., where baseball is taking a backseat to other sports for millions of kids. I’m not sure the level of talent development is quite the same here as it’s been in other parts of the world.
I’ve been to the Dominican Republic and seen firsthand how youths there are trained in pro-style settings from the time they are as young as 12. By the time many of those kids hit 15, they are living a pro baseball lifestyle in terms of training daily, avoiding school and needing to earn a living at the sport to feed their families. It’s sad to witness. But I’ll tell you, American kids that age just can’t compete with those Dominican youths. Those Dominicans have talent and an adult-like hunger to achieve in their sport and get signed by MLB teams once they hit 16 or 17. The youths over here are more into video games and hanging out at the mall than working out 12 hours a day at baseball.
As they should be.
I’m not at all advocating that type of child abuse over here. And I’m calling it what it is, child abuse, with the full co-operation of many MLB teams who cull the Dominican for teenage talent. But it is what it is. That’s how a country of seven million can produce so many baseball professionals and compete on an even keel with a country of 300 million.
It’s talent development at its extreme. And it works.
Now, things are a little different over in Asia. I’m not for a minute suggesting the abuses that occur in Latin America are going on in Japan and Korea. But from what I’ve been told, having not been there firsthand to witness it, the development of young talent is more regimented than it is over here. And if that’s the case, it is possible that Japan could make up gaps with the U.S. in terms of producing baseball talent on an even keel with this country. It might take time. But maybe not all that much time.
Bottom line is: we’re talking about a best-of-seven World Series here. The best Japanese club team versus the top MLB squad. Could it be competitive? Meaning, could the best Japanese squad take the series to six or seven games? I’m willing to bet that it could. Heck, if the St. Louis Cardinals, riding the arm of Jeff Weaver, could take out the Tigers in 2006 and win a title, anything’s possible.
And it doesn’t even have to be the Japanese champ. The South Koreans, after all, are playing some pretty good baseball these days as well. Maybe you make it the Asian champ taking on the MLB winner.
Are you telling me a top Asian squad couldn’t produce two starting pitchers capable of duking it out with an MLB club team? I find that hard to believe. And two top starters would be all you’d need to create the potential for a competitive World Series right from the start. After that, if the Japanese or Korean teams sensed some deficiencies in how they were competing, perhaps there could be changes instiutued at the lower rungs of baseball programs in those countries.
I liked what Kenji Johjima had to say about Japanese pitchers in this story we ran a while back.
“Japan’s greatest asset is its pitching,” he said. “Can they throw harder than America’s pitchers? No. But when you consider how they react to a bunt situation, the running game, the quality of their slide step, they’re first class. They’re able to compete with subtleties like adjusting their timing with runners on base, executing superb control, throwing pitches with sharp breaks, and so on. The catcher’s got to step it up so he doesn’t kill their game. The American game is more of a power game. They’re [American pitchers] not likely to throw a breaking pitch at 2-0. Japanese pitchers can throw their breaking pitches for strikes.”
The reason I’m making this an Asia vs. MLB thing is that Japan, and possibly Korea, still have pro leagues good enough to compete on such a level. And their players are still not as entwined in the fabric of MLB so as to create too much of a crossover effect. Obviously, if the Mariners made the World Series, Ichiro would be competing against squads from his native country or region. But that’s happened before. Ichiro was on that same team of MLB All-Stars as Hinske was when they won that series seven years ago in Japan.
But a few crossover players is far different than it would be with Dominican or Venezuelan players, who are literally the glue holding the foundation of MLB ball together as we venture forth into a new decade. That would be too much crossover for a World Series to be effective. Besides, there are no pro leagues competitive enough in either of those Latin American countries that could go head-to-head with MLB clubs.
It’s different in Asia, where many star players — for reasons of culture, money and sometimes fear — choose to remain back home and play rather than test MLB waters. Create a true World Series and more of them might choose to stay in Japan or Korea to play, especially with the added financial windfall that could come from truly internationalizing the game at the club level.
And that’s pretty much why this idea will never happen.
MLB doesn’t want the best players in the world choosing to stay in their home countries. It wants them over here playing for the Mariners, Yankees and Red Sox. The goal of the WBC is to expand baseball’s marketplace on a global scale, with MLB the unitary driving force behind this enterprise. MLB doesn’t care if Japan, Puerto Rico or Venezuela beats up on the U.S. in this tournament, as long as all of those teams are stocked with MLB players.
The WBC is about money, not flag waving.
And if MLB can rake in money by globalizing through the WBC, without having to risk giving up the world supremacy of its league to some Japanese upstart club team in a real World Series, all the better. Why risk the reputation, after all, as the world’s best baseball league by putting that claim to the test? Especially. given the prevelance of “upsets” in one-game formatted tournaments like the WBC and the grass roots fanatacism of baseball in Japan and Korea.
Nope, MLB is the best baseball league in the world. And no one will ever get the chance to prove otherwise.
Not as long as the WBC is around to showcase the game’s growth in tournaments where MLB players can beat up on themselves.
So, consider this a requiem for any hope at a “real” World Series. I think it’s a better idea than most baseball people in this part of the world give it credit for. And that’s why it will never see the light of day.
Photo Credit: AP

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