International baseball has never seen such parity. Nor has it ever confronted such an uncertain future.
Two tournaments involving professionals in October saw first-time winners. The Netherlands beat Cuba twice, including 2-1 in the championship game, and became the first European country to win a major international tournament by winning the World Cup in Panama. Two weeks later, Canada won its first major tournament ever, also by a 2-1 score, beating the United States to win the Pan American Games, held in Mexico.
Those tournament victories show the increased parity of international baseball in the professional era, which began in 1998. In just the last six years, seven different nations have claimed international or continental tournaments, from Canada and the Dutch this year to Cuba (2005 World Cup), Japan (two World Baseball Classics), South Korea (’08 Olympics), the Dominican Republic (’10 Pan Am qualifier) and the U.S. (’07 and ’09 World Cups).
However, the international calendar is about to become much more streamlined. The International Baseball Federation will no longer hold the Baseball World Cup, instead ceding the title of “world champion” to the winner of the World Baseball Classic, Major League Baseball’s international event.
The WBC expands to 28 teams for its next installment, with 16 countries—including Canada and Taiwan—vying in four four-team pods in the fall of 2012. The four winners will join the top 12 finishers from the 2009 WBC in the 16-team field in the spring of 2013.
“A lot of effort by a lot of dedicated people at IBAF and around the world have gotten us to this point,” said Paul Archey, MLB’s senior vice president for international business operations. “It will be a less-cluttered landscape, which I think will be a positive.
“Clearly, the WBC has quickly become the premier international baseball event. It is the one spot in which the best players in the world, regardless of their professional or amateur status, can play for their country at the highest level.”
IBAF president Riccardo Fraccari said his organization’s top-level tournament will build off the WBC. Its next major tournament with professionals will be called the Premier 12 and is tentatively scheduled for 2015. Premier 12 likely will be limited to non-40-man roster players, like the World Cup before it.
Meanwhile, IBAF will continue to press its case for Olympic reinstatement for baseball.
“For the Netherlands to win the World Cup is very important, to show baseball is truly a global sport that is growing in Europe,” Fraccari said in a phone interview from Rome. “I think we can show to the International Olympic Committee that baseball is not only an American sport.
“Baseball is globalizing. The best athletes are no longer just American. Japan has won the last two Classics. Almost 50 percent of players in MLB (organizations) are not American. With (Seattle’s) Alex Liddi, Italy has its first major leaguer. And now you have the Netherlands winning the World Cup.”
IBAF will continue to put on youth tournaments, and Archey said MLB has contemplated its own events at the junior level. “We have talked about a ‘World Baseball Classic Junior’ . . . but our focus needs to be on getting the Senior tournament right first.”