What Baseball Can Learn from the World Cup | The Golden Sombrero Baseball Blog | MLB, Fantasy, College & High School Baseball News

What Baseball Can Learn from the World Cup

Yesterday morning the United States netted the most important goal in American history in the 91st minute against an Algerian team that was supposed to suck.  Despite how bad they were supposed to be, they certainly challenged the Americans to their absolute limit.  This World Cup has seen the French and Italians both eliminated before the round of 16 as well as the Redcoats desperately needing a goal against Slovenia to make it out of group play.  The World Cup, because of the time zone it is being played in, has been televised in it’s entirety here in the States.  For maybe the first time in my life, I get the feeling people over here genuinely care.  I’m not even sure that it’s completely because the States have such a compelling team this year.  I think America may finally be giving soccer the chance it deserves.

In today’s sports environment, I firmly believe that soccer and baseball share a unique quality.  In both sports, athleticism and stature still are secondary to technique and skill.  Consider basketball and football.  While I’m not really positive if there even exist skills to be learned (aside from passing and kicking) in football, it certainly seems as though there are few if any.  Shooting a basketball requires a great deal of skill, but very few players are truly proficient from long-range.  Minimum size requirements exist in both basketball and football barring incredibly, almost obscenely rare exceptions (Nate and Mugsy come to mind).  The entire combine environment should make baseball fans gag because tests like 40-yard dashes and vertical leap are so trivial to proficiency in games of skill, like baseball.  Soccer is the same way.  I have seen very few World Cupper participants I would describe as gigantic or jacked or any other term I would use to describe Dwight Howard or Bron Bron.  In a game played primarily on the ground, what advantage is there in being tall?  Most midfielders don’t even have to be all that fast.  Excellent touch and vision seem to be their primary concern.  Long story short, I really like soccer.  I played through high school and play in a couple of leagues nowadays.  I think America is ready to embrace soccer.  I am incredibly thankful for the goal we scored yesterday, and the joy the Americans showed after Landon’s goal is something that only exists in soccer in my opinion.

Well, why is that?  Buzzer beater shots and Hail Mary passes exist in those other sports I never watch, and walk-off jacks are sweet.  They are even better in playoff settings.  The difference is that the hopes of an entire nation, hope that only coalesces once every four years, were riding on that shot and continue to ride with this squad.  This is far and away our best shot to win, and frankly we shouldn’t win.  I don’t believe any team should.  After watching the French and Italians both exit early, I truly believe that in soccer, like baseball, any team can get hot at the right time and drive to the title.  Maybe we will get hot.  Maybe we already are.  If two goals (that were good) don’t get called back, we would have been described as steamrolling our way through a group that also contained the Redcoats, our nation’s oldest enemy and a historically good soccer team.  What I’m saying is that I’m psyched for Saturday.  I really, really hope we win.

Did anyone care if we really won either of the World Baseball Classics?  I cared, but I honestly didn’t care nearly as much as I do about this Saturday’s soccer match with Ghana.  What’s different?  Well, history, first of all.  The World Cup is old.  The first one was played in 1930.  That’s a long time for people to be drawn to it.  Secondly, soccer is played on 6 continents at levels capable of winning on an international stage.  Thirdly, soccer has numerous professional leagues that field the top players in the world.  Baseball has but one.  In soccer, it is considered an honor and a privilege to play for one’s country.  In baseball, it is regarded as burdensome by far too many players.  The player development in the United States in soccer is nationally funded with the intention of fielding a team that will make us proud on the international stage.  In this regard, baseball, which also has a nationally funded player development system, is severely behind soccer.  This surely has to do with the fact that no one seemed to care how our Minor Leaguers played in the Olympics.  That was just an all-around stupid idea in the first place.

Let’s address a few of these points in an effort to potentially shed light on what specifically the WBC could do differently to draw greater interest from fans.  Personally, I think a lot of the problem lies in the fact that the South Koreans and Japanese players, who are as good as us in most ways, are unfamiliar to American fans because they play in Asian leagues.  Well, I don’t even know of a lot of the players on the American soccer team, so that’s not legitimate.  However, it would not hurt to occasionally mingle with the Japanese or Korean champions, as well as the Cubans.  Imagine if Spring Training were to include international teams.  I have already heard that the recently abandoned training sites in Tucson may be the future home to a couple of Japanese teams.  Why not some Koreans and Cubans?  Maybe we could turn Spring Training into a way to familiarize American fans with international players and styles.  Perhaps these could become WBC qualifier events.  Spring Training tends to drag on toward the end of March.  This could bring some interest to an otherwise slow time of year.

The history of the WBC will simply take time to develop.  Hopefully it will last long enough to develop the history the World Cup has.  Baseball is played on six continents as well, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that baseball is played in South Africa or Greece like it is played in the States or the Dominican.  Imagine if you were Jeter and you were told that you were going to play a nationally televised game against Greek players. No wonder our players shrug it off as a nuisance.  And Jeter has been very receptive to the WBC, appearing in both after all.  What’s worse is that many of the players representing these international teams are guys with ethnic surnames but who are neither citizens nor frequenters of the nations they represent.  If the Italians can’t field a real team, they have no reason to be included in the event.

I truly think that the greatest obstacle standing in the way of the WBC’s rise to relevance is player perception of the event.  The fact that inclusion on the roster is something to be debated by ungrateful players is shameful.  Last WBC, Puke-ilis was mildly injured in a WBC game on a Saturday and was excused from Sunday’s game, but was in a Red Sox spring game the following Monday!  Mark DeRosa played first base Sunday.  Mark DeRosa.  Not Prince or Howard.  Our backup was Mark DeRosa.  Why was our backup Mark DeRosa?  Because a bunch of impossible-to-please, ungrateful, and selfish pricks litter the upper echelons of professional baseball.  Personally, I find refusal to represent the United States in a game we invented is far worse than steroid or meth abuse and should be treated as such.  Refusal to play in the WBC for no apparent reason (and a 15-day DL stint because of a blister is not legitimate) should be punishable by fine and suspension of no less than half the season.  If Bud Selig cares about this event, he must woo the owners in a way that ensures America’s best is out there every game of the WBC beating Japan, which leads me to my final point.

Public perception is that America produces the finest baseball and baseball players in the world.  Wrong.  We did not even make the final of the first WBC and we lost in the championship game the following WBC to the nation that should now be regarded as the finest in the world: Japan.  Japan has the only league in which players at the highest level are swapped with Big Leaguers.  MLB is missing an opportunity to build at least one honest-to-God rival.  According to a bunch of biased American scouts, the Japanese league is about at the level of American AA ball.  I imagine AAA is more accurate, maybe bad National League.  And that is with nearly entirely Japanese players.  Imagine if the MLB was simply comprised of American-born players and had no Latino, Canadian, or Asian influence.  It might look similar to the Japanese league.  My personal belief is that the most logical place to start developing an international tournament that truly represents the nations involved, is to promote the Japanese as a true rival to the Americans.  Because the World Cup is so old, countless rivalries exist between competing nations.  Baseball has none because the sport has been exclusive to America for most of its existence.  Not anymore.  This rivalry should be the center of the next WBC, but the Americans will be embarrassed again if they do not demand the players they invite do not accept their invitations.

International competition, like the World Cup and the Olympics, is a very powerful aspect of sports.  The pride I felt after Landon netted our goal was almost strange.  I would really love for baseball to have a similar event that brought that out of me.

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