When a soccer team wins the FIFA World Cup and a cyclist finishes first in the Tour de France, that team or that person is considered world champion. Given these examples, it seems odd that the Major League Baseball championship is titled the World Series when 29 of the 30 teams play in the contiguous United States. Even stranger, this moniker dates back to the inaugural championship in 1903, when the 16 teams only stretched from Boston to St. Louis and an even greater majority of players were American.
Our national pastime’s struggle to find a true identity is ironic. My feelings are conflicted; I am proud of baseball as America’s sport, but at the same time, I think making a stronger impact abroad will benefit the game. Expanding baseball overseas is natural and will help the competitive nature of the game for future generations.
The push for worldwide appeal this season started in the preseason when the Yankees and Miami Marlins played two games in Panama, home of the recently retired Mariano Rivera. On March 22 and 23, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers opened up the regular season with two games in Australia. This is not the first time MLB has taken this approach; recently, seasons have commenced with games in Monterrey, Mexico, Tokyo and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Los Angeles took both games from its divisional rivals at the Sydney Cricket Ground. More importantly, the fans down under seemed to enjoy the best baseball has to offer. Baseball has been played in Australia for over 150 years, and the Australian Baseball League has seen domestic success but has not reached the level of international play that would make it a national sport. Only 28 Australian natives have made the Major Leagues, and all except the great Joe Quinn have played during the past two decades, a promising sign for the future of Australian baseball.
Australia has shown interest in baseball at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as an exhibition event and at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in which they took home the silver medal after losing to the United States’ gold-winning club. Baseball is no longer an Olympic event since the World Baseball Classic has taken its place. Sixteen countries participate every fourth year, as in the Olympics, and many MLB players can choose to be on the roster of their countries of origin. In the three WBCs, the U.S. has placed at least fourth, and different countries form a nice competitive balance each time, a testament to the international appeal of baseball. Australia has participated all three times but has not had much success in the international tournament. It still has work to do to get to the level of the dominant Asian Pacific and Latin American countries. Exposing Australians to major league play is a good start to get to that point.
In an interesting twist of fate, the national pastime is the only one of the four major American sports leagues to not have “National” in the title. The NHL is obviously dependent on its foreign athletes. The NBA has traveled to growing basketball markets, like China, Spain, Israel, the U.K. and Mexico, for both exhibition and regular season games over the past decades. The NFL has brought American football to London, as well as Mexico City and Toronto.
Some players, most notably Dodgers starting pitcher Zach Greinke, opposed playing at ball fields thousands of miles away. Others echo his concern. Players often have to travel enough on road trips that can fatigue them throughout the season. Having to play additional games even further away would create conflict with the players’ union and scheduling. In addition, the games held in Australia were televised at night in the United States, so the fans of the West Coast teams had to watch opening day starting at 2 a.m. in the Pacific time zone.
I have come to terms with the inevitable sales pitch abroad, which has really been going on for as long as baseball has existed. My only wish is that America starts embracing the sports of other countries just as we are pushing ours on them. Allowing cricket and rugby, first into niche markets but later into the public mainstream, would be a fair trade for our investment. Hopefully, our global world will make sharing sports easier for us, and we should embrace that possibility on both ends.