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The World Baseball Classic comes to life
by Alan Schwarz
We've waited so long for the World Baseball Classic--the world-cup style tournament featuring major leaguers playing for their home countries, just announced for next March--that it seems sadistic to waste much time here. Let's instead jump right in with Tim Brosnan and Paul Archey, MLB International's two prime architects for the event, as they discuss the road to now, Cuba's prognosis and just how in the world they're going to get this thing done:
ALAN SCHWARZ: This tournament has been so long in the making. What was the genesis of it?
TIM BROSNAN: Major League Baseball International started in 1989. I joined the company in 1991. We started to put this idea together amongst ourselves that baseball wasn't going to become a global game just by force-feeding people the game over the airwaves. We were going to need to spoon-feed people the game in person.
In 1993 or so, we were on the back porch of my house in Westchester--that's what our offsites amounted to. I would be cooking burgers on a skillet. We started with this germ of an idea that playing games in a lot of different ways was going to be critical to the success of the business. We talked about leagues, we talked about Olympics. And then we talked about, 'Why be a smaller part of a bigger whole? Why can't there be something that was ours, that we could own, our own stage?' It wasn't the first time we talked about it, it was the first time we put it on paper--what if we did something like the Olympics, but it wasn't the Olympics?
PAUL ARCHEY: We also realized that at that time, we may have been ready, but the rest of the world wasn't ready. We wanted to play major league games in Latin America, which we've now done. We wanted to play games in Japan, we did our all-star tours, but we also said we've got to play Opening Day games in Japan. We've now played in six or seven markets. So there were a number of steps that we had to go through to get to this point. The world wasn't ready for this then, but it is now. Thirty percent of our players are foreign-born, and the caliber of play around the world is now such that we can put on a competitive event.
AS: There had been some confidence you could pull this off in 2005. Was getting the Asian leagues on board what delayed it a year?
PA: I think it was a major reason and cause. The Japan professional leagues were going through some issues with club mergers, clubs being sold, they had a brief work stoppage. This wasn't something at the time that they could commit to.
AS: What kind of fervor do you expect in the stands? The national pride?
PA: I think that's what makes this event so compelling: We already have built-in matchups. The Latin countries are going to be playing each other with the best players that they can put on the field. China-Japan, Taiwan-Korea, United States-Canada. We have some very compelling matchups.
TB: In 1994, during the strike, there was that Dream Team during the Caribbean Series. You had a decent number of major league players playing against one another. It was insane. The level of excitement, the level of enmity, the passion people have. When people put national pride and athletic competition into the same venue, all the emotions get squared.
AS: And everyone wants a crack at Cuba.
TB: Right, because Cuba has been able to use "their best" in international competition, and all of these other guys haven't.
AS: What is the unique challenge of getting Cuba to participate?
TB: We're hoping people can lay politics aside. The basis for this event is getting the best baseball players in the world. Period. The best players in the world to play under the flag of their country against one another.
AS: Does that home-and-home series between the Orioles and Cuba several years ago help?
PA: I don't think it hurts. I don't know if it helps.
TB: Let's not forget that President Bush is the No. 1 baseball fan in the country.
AS: Let's not forget that he tightened restrictions on Cuba.
TB: But we all know he likes to watch a good baseball game.
AS: How will rosters be assembled? I would imagine that the United States roster will be assembled differently than, say, the South African roster.
PA: The national teams will be selected by the federations--however, they must be done in cooperation with not only Major League Baseball but also the other professional leagues from which they may select players. Any player on a major league contract has to be approved by MLB, just like they do in the Olympics.
AS: What right will a major league team have to deny the player permission to play? A certain New York owner, for instance?
PA: I think that's one of the cases where details have to be worked out.
TB: This is one of the great byproducts of this event--that people are having this kind of discussion 10 months before. It's all great.
AS: How might pitch limits work?
PA: We haven't determined that. The technical committee will take a look at it, and we'll consult with major league people, major league GMs, other baseball people and come up with whatever restrictions, limitations, rules that we think are appropriate.
TB: But here's the cool thing about it--it's going to be a little bit of a different game when people are speculating about how many pitches that guy has left today and how many pitches that guy has left in the week. It forces so much debate about how to put the team together--relievers, starters, middle relievers. Do you pull this guy now and save him? Do you have enough of a cushion? Do you want to save his pitches for later in the week? This is a unique tournament.
PA: You're going to have to build your team with sufficient depth. Do you start you best pitcher or do you save him for tomorrow? Will there be a tomorrow? It's going to add to the intrigue.
AS: What have you been told from the Players Association about the players' enthusiasm and commitment?
PA: The Players Association has been extremely supportive and positive on this project, and the feedback that they've given us from players has been outstanding. Their players want this event. They want to have the opportunity to play for their country, which many of them have never had. I'm convinced that we're going to have tremendous success with getting players to play.
TB: What separates these guys from the rest of us is their competitive spirit. This is another chance for them to test their skills. It's a different angle on their skill-set, and this is what gets them going every day.
PA: The answer among players has already started--just hearing comments back and forth from the Dominican players talking about how they're loaded, or how they hope they'll make the team. The Venezuelans looking at what they have. They're very excited.
AS: What does it feel like right now, knowing that after all this time planning, you now have only nine months to pull this thing off?
TB: It's been 10, 12 years in the talking, and it's going to be nine months in the making. Ten years of ideas are going to get compressed into nine months of execution. You're dealing with 16 different countries; you're going to play in six or eight different venues; you're going to try to televise to 200 countries. You're going to try to produce 39 games in a myriad of languages. I'm looking at it like, 'Let's go.' This is as good as it gets for us.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.