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Global Journalist: World Baseball Classic more than just exhibition play

Sunday, March 15, 2009 | 4:59 p.m. CDT; updated 10:31 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 5, 2009

As a break from the usual emphasis on politics and the economy, gloomy as it may be, this week’s Global Journalist focuses on the World Baseball Classic.  

Betty Houchin Winfield, a University of Missouri curators’ professor, is the substitute host.  

Winfield: The crocuses and daffodils are peeking through the soil, the tree limbs are pointing their little buds toward the sun, already baseball players here at the university and professionally are training for another season. At the same time, a real World Series is going on between 16 countries. Many big leaguers are foreign nationals playing for their native lands. Tonight’s focus is a break from the usual political and economic news, the World Baseball Classic. This baseball classic is rather new, how did it begin?

David Lengel, baseball writer, Guardian, New York, NY: Major League Baseball has been trying to create an international tournament as an answer to the Olympics for many years. Officials at MLB have accepted that they could never send top-flight players to the Olympics because it takes place during the season. It started in 2006 and now in 2009. From here, they will play on a four-year basis.

Winfield:  Why only 16 teams this year, who decides who plays?

Paul White, baseball writer, USA Today, Toronto, Canada:  The tournament was born out of an agreement between MLB and the players’ union. The Olympic committee has taken out baseball because they feel that not enough countries play the sport. It has been a somewhat regional sport in the Western hemisphere, but European baseball has grown tremendously and Asian baseball has grown even more. The organizers want to get up to 32 teams in 2013.

Winfield: Is there a problem with players being released to play for their home country?

Jim Allen, baseball writer, Daily Yomiuri, Tokyo, Japan: There is always a few. There was an issue with Lee Seung Yeop who plays in Japan. He was a star of the Olympic team and a big hitter of the 2006 WBC. He was hurt and didn’t play well last season and the Giants basically told him not to play.

Winfield:  What has been the most exciting aspect that you have noticed in this series?

Robert Eenhoorn, general manager of the Dutch baseball team, commissioner for the Royal Netherlands Baseball and Softball Federation, Washington, D.C.: For us, it is obviously winning the second game over the Dominican Republic that has put us in the next round.

Winfield: What a Cinderella story! The Dominican Republic had no Alex Rodriguez to help them, did that make a difference?

Eenhoorn: They were obviously a good team, with or without Alex. But, looking at their team and looking at the team that we had on paper, I don’t think there were too many people picking us to beat them twice.

Winfield: How did the Venezuelans manage to beat team USA.? What was the key to their victory?

Lengel: The Venezuelans have a formidable team. Their pitching staff isn’t as deep without Johan Santana, who is recovering from knee surgery, but their bats have quite the punch. Most of these games have been played with tremendous intensity, but both teams in this game knew they would advance to the second round. At this stage, every team deserves to be there, including the Dutch. The only thing missing, at the moment, is support inside the U.S. fans. In New York, the only time I have seen the WBC on the tabloid back pages was the debate around Rodriquez. Some talk show hosts in New York are still referring to the competition as an exhibition. Those of us who enjoy seeing an expansion of baseball take issue with a statement like that.

Winfield: Why isn’t there more excitement here?

Eenhoorn: People just need to get used to it, baseball is a traditional sport and 2006 was the first time major leaguers were able to play in an international competition. In countries like Japan, Korea, Venezuela or the Netherlands, it means a lot to play for your country. Here, it is still focused on MLB.  It will take time to grow, but I hope everyone sees this is going to be a tremendous help for the development of baseball worldwide.

Winfield: In 2006, we were shocked when the U.S. finished eighth and Japan won. What do you think is going to happen this weekend?

Allen: We’re all waiting to watch Mexico and Cuba. If Cuba wins, the first second-round game will be a rematch of the 2006 final with Japan. Japan trashed Korea 14–2 in their first meeting at the Tokyo Dome, but the Koreans turned around and beat them 1–0 the second time. There was no letting up in that game because Japan and Korea have a very heated rivalry. The Tokyo Dome was sold out, and the tickets were expensive. There is a lot of national investment in these games — the fans are really into it.

Lengel: It is wonderful to see the game being spread and finally have a heavyweight tournament. Look how much better China played. They lost to Japan only 4–0, I think they lost 18–3 last time they played.

Allen: Since the Beijing Olympics were announced, the Chinese team has been a fixture over here. A former major leaguer, Jimmy Lefebvre, has managed it for five or six years and they have come a long way.

Winfield: How native must a player be to play for a particular country? I notice many Dutch players appear to be from the Caribbean.

Eenhoorn: I have all the rules, but it is complicated; it’s different from what we are used to in international competitions. In some countries, you can play if your great grandparents were born and held a passport there. We all have the same Netherlands passport whether you are born in the Netherlands or Curacao, so we didn’t have to do much.

Winfield: Many major leaguers are international players from the Caribbean, almost 500 coming from the Dominican Republic, 232 from Venezuela and 224 from Puerto Rico. How does such a powerhouse come from this region?

Lengel:  From a historical perspective, it is leftover from imperialism. Wherever the British went in the Caribbean, they’re playing cricket; wherever the Americans are, they’re playing baseball. The population has a genuine love for the game. In Cuba, around every corner is a game of baseball or a homemade version, whether they were using a pencil, a piece of wood, an old ball, a bottle cap, anything they could find.

Winfield: What are these clickers rules for pitchers?

White: There is a concern from the organizers of the tournament that people are not in regular season form yet, particularly MLB teams paying these guys. To be careful, there are limits on how many pitches a pitcher can throw. It starts at 70 pitches in the first round and goes up to 85 in the second round; it does change the strategy of the game. National team managers are very sensitive to it because they know the MLB managers are watching very closely.

Winfield:  What will happen? Will Japan carry through again?

Lengel:  I like the Cuban team and now the Dutch, which is almost everybody’s favorite team now. There is always that curiosity watching Cuba because we don’t see those players on an everyday basis. They play the game a little differently, a flamboyant brand of baseball.

Winfield: How much will this help those that stand out in this tournament that maybe aren’t in the major leagues? Do we have some stars that we will see more of here in the states?

Allen: Probably. Last time, Daisuke Matsuzaka was the 2006 MVP and then signed a $50 million plus contract with the Red Sox. Some people say there is a pitcher still in Japan who is better than Matsuzaka. Yu Darvish is a 6’4” half Iranian, half Japanese kid who throws hard. But, he says he doesn’t want to play in the majors.

Winfield: We certainly would like to see a little more excitement in this country.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht.  The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Betty Winfield, also a professor of Journalism Studies at the MU School of Journalism moderated this week's radio program "Global Journalist" for Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism. Stuart Loory will return next week.  “Global Journalist" airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at globaljournalist.org


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