Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The World Series: A North American Event on the Global Stage

Each October, when the last autumnal hours hold winter at bay, a new chapter is written in the enduring history of baseball's main event. All over the globe, millions of fans will tune in, via television, radio and Internet, to watch the World Series and see new champions doused in the champagne of success. At this time, we see an exponential rise in the volume of Brits asking “why do they call it a World Series, when only teams from America and Canada play?”

The annual debate tends to open a whole can of worms, which British baseball fans are tired of clearing up. The age-old chestnuts get tossed into the fire: teams from other countries should be allowed to play! How can Americans be so arrogant? In what way is this a World Series? 

On a basic level, I understand many of these concerns. However, it's also important to note that, on the whole, such protests come from casual sports fans who have little interest in baseball; from football and cricket fans who like to throw in their two cents whenever baseball is mentioned in mainstream dispatches. 

The truth, no matter how vociferously you may argue to the contrary, is that the American game is far superior, in skill, management, and marketability, than any other variation. When you think of baseball, it's impossible not to think of America. Thus, I've long been a firm believer in MLB's right to market itself as a world league, with a World Series and even a World Champion. 

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I determined to answer once and for all the timeless question regarding the etymology of baseball's crowning showcase. When tackling such issues, there is only one way to seriously begin, and that is talking to Josh Chetwynd, a former catcher for Great Britain and perhaps the finest, most intelligent advocate of the game ever to grace these otherwise uninitiated shores.

“I've broadcasted baseball in the UK for eleven years,” stated Chetwynd, the author of numerous books on the global game, "and I don't think a year has gone by were I haven't been asked this question.” 

I know the feeling.

“One real urban myth,” Chetwynd began, “is that it [the World Series] was named after a paper called The New York World that was the sponsor of an early World Series. That's not true; it's a complete myth.”

Indeed, I've encountered this old yarn before. It's a complete fabrication, lacking in any historical fact, recycled by baseball fans all over the world at this time of year. The World, a tabloid in circulation from 1860-1931, never alluded to any such sponsorship deal, and official Baseball Hall of Fame spokesmen have frequently dispelled the myth.

So, if not from the capricious world of New York tabloids, then from where does the World Series moniker originate? 

As Chetwynd explains, it's largely derived from the aspiration of one man: Albert Goodwill Spalding. A pitcher, manager, executive, and all-round baseball trailblazer, Spalding “wanted to bring baseball literally to the world,” explains Chetwynd. Thus, in 1888, a blend of American capitalism and nationalism motivated Spalding to take baseball on a world tour unheralded in size and daring, wowing audiences in eight different countries, including Australia, Great Britain and France. The Boston Globe wrote that “for boldness and scope, [Spalding's project] tops anything ever before attempted in the world of sports.”

Spalding had a dual motivation. In the first instance, he felt that, by expanding baseball to foreign lands, new consumer markets would become available; market that his wide-reaching sporting goods empire could use to make money. Simultaneously, Spalding could provide a window into an expanding US culture and, in turn, help solidify baseball as a truly American export. 

So it was that an entourage of twenty ballplayers, a cricket coach, and a stable of women were sent off by President Grover Cleveland on a global baseball trek. In time, exhibitions would be played in the shadows of the Sphinx in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in France, and Rome's Coliseum. A cast of all-star ballplayers, including Hall of Famers Cap Anson and John Montgomery Ward, brought baseball to cities like Naples, Paris and London; Dublin, Birmingham and Glasgow; Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. 

"Spalding really believed that, with his support, these countries were going to bring baseball into a world purview,” says Chetwynd. "Ultimately, he hoped that the World Series would be exactly that, with the teams from Great Britain, France and elsewhere being good enough to play against those from the United States, with the result being a true World Series."

However, when the level of baseball talent in these foreign lands proved inadequate to America's new-age professionalism, Spalding began to concentrate instead on glorifying the US game. At this time, Spalding's revered Official Baseball Guide began referring to American baseball's championship series as “the World's Championship,” which was later shortened to “World's Series.” Hyperbole was the very zeitgeist of this grand era; Spalding's marketing sense in branding the Series as a global event speaking to a newfound American bravery to grab the world by the collar and make itself known. Americans wanted to be power-brokers on the biggest stage of all, and the World Series was a valuable weapon in the fight.

Whilst there is a factual trail to the term “World Series,” it also works on a visceral level. No domestic team from another country is currently capable of competing commercially nor on the field with Major League Baseball. The standard of play in the US, beginning with the core collegiate system, is far superior. Even Japan and the Dominican Republic, amongst the most baseball-literate of foreign lands, are eons away from the level of professionalism displayed throughout the organised American game.

“The World Series is the pinnacle for any baseball player and fan," says Gabe Kapler, a member of the historic 2004 Boston Red Sox with whom I spoke about the game's global growth. "It's the peak of excitement, the highest test of character and determination a sportsman could ever face."

Kapler, a career .268 hitter who spent parts of twelve Major League seasons with the Rangers, Tigers, Rockies, Brewers and Rays, is most fondly remembered as a Red Sock. Why? Because he was one of just nine Boston players present on the field of play when the team won it's first World Series in 86 years, thus completing an unprecedented postseason run and banishing the Babe Ruth Curse.

Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that baseball's World Series, in name and reality, is a worldwide phenomenon. It's what everybody years for, and what everybody most readily remembers. 

This is particularly true in the Dominican Republic, an island, indeed a culture, which dances to the baseball beat. Keith Winters, a Dominican baseball expert, spent the 2009 season following the Gigantes de Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. As Winters explains, the dream of emulating World Series champions such as Kapler is a way of Dominican life. "Pretty much every Dominican plays with the hopes of making the big leagues, he confers. "Some have a goal to make it to a US college, or simply make the minor leagues, so they can stick around and get a regular job in the United States.”

“One in every 10,000 Dominicans is in the big leagues," Winters continues. "By comparison, the number in the US last year was one in every 500,000 people.” This level of Dominican success on the world baseball stage breeds excitement and hope for many young children in the country, who, wishing to tread in the footsteps of countrymen such as David Ortiz and Albert Pujols, often see baseball as an escape from poverty and a catalyst for prosperity. 

“Most Dominicans know someone that is fairly close to them - a relative, an ex-teammate, or somebody from their town – that has made the big leagues,” illustrates Winters, “which makes the dream seem attainable.”

In many respects, Major League Baseball is the league of dreams. On the 2014 Opening Day rosters of all thirty teams, 224, players were foreign-born, good for 26.3% of the total workforce. A total of sixteen different countries were represented in MLB this season. The Texas Rangers had 15 foreign players on its initial 25-man roster, with the San Francisco Giants (13) and Chicago White Sox (11) close behind.

Furthermore, the sheer volume of games makes MLB the most-watch sports league on the planet, in gross terms. Nowadays, internet connections make it all the more easier for Major League Baseball to reach new enclaves, and those watching aspire to win a ring just like Gabe Kapler.

For instance, let Winters regale you with a tale of Dominican October: “During playoffs time in the big leagues, Dominicans are always interested in what other Dominicans are doing. One quote I love that I heard from a librarian one day in the Dominican during the Phillies vs Yankees World Series in 2009, when he said 'I don't care who wins, but whatever team has more Dominicans, that is who I want to win.' The whole country was rooting for Pedro Martinez and the Phillies that year, even though the Yankees had a few Dominicans too. Pedro is a legend down there.”

So, could a country such as the Dominican ever harness it's passion for baseball and channel it into direct competition with the US Major Leagues? Will we ever see Spalding's initial plan come to fruition and have domestic teams from all over the world competing with the might of MLB? One day, will we have a World Series between the New York Yankees and the Gigantes de Cibao? 

Winters doesn't think so. "The best we can hope for as far as a true World Series would be something like the Toyota Cup in soccer," he explains, "in which the domestic league champions all play some sort of playoff.”

For arguments sake, let's look at the main rivals to Major League Baseball should a thirst for international competition emerge. The popular consensus holds that the nearest alternative to MLB, in terms of professionalism, fan interest and history, is Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB). If, in some quirky development, MLB was to expand, Japan would surely send the most adaptable franchises. 

In Japan, baseball is of huge interest, with the Major League success of demigods such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish providing a modern chapter in a historical narrative previously dominated by home run hero Sadaharu Oh. It is notoriously difficult to find accurate attendance records for NPB games, but the league averages 25,000 per contest, which substantiates its claim as a professional baseball powerhouse. The levels of professionalism, talent and celebrity associated with NPB are perhaps the most comparable with MLB throughout the entire world. However, the Japanese league still lags far behind the US Major Leagues in many other areas. 

For instance, in 2013, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's glamour team, became the first NPB team to break the 3,000,000 threshold in attendance since 2010. On one level, this inspires deep admiration and speaks to the undeniable popularity of the Japanese game. When viewed through an MLB prism, however, the distance between its nearest competitors still resembles a canyon: in 2013, eight MLB teams reached the 3,000,000 mark. 

Furthermore, the migration of NPB's biggest stars is most indicative of MLB's impenetrable standing as baseball's definitive league. The goal for Japanese players, just as for Dominicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and every other nationality, is to one day venture to the United States to play ball. Ichiro, Dice-K, Yu, Nomo, the list of great Japanese players making a success of MLB is seemingly endless. How can any nation even think of competing with MLB, if it's best talents understandably join the enemy? 

By extension, how can we ever question MLB's right to call its showcase event a World Series?

This is all highly relative. Here in Britain, we recently cherished the opening of Farnham Park, the fruit of years of dedication from the baseball community. At last, we have a respectable, showcase diamond. For us, it works, it's something to be immensely proud of, a monument to our extensive development as a baseball-playing nation. Obviously, there is just no comparison with Major League Baseball, however. Farnham Park probably ranks as a Spring Training practice diamond for MLB teams; a fantastic achievement for us Brits, yet barely a blip on the US-tinted baseball radar. It shows, more than ever, why we should just be content with MLB's standing as the true world league, and respect it's right for a World Series moniker. 

It may never pit the Chicago Cubs against the Seibu Lions, the Leones del Escogido against the London Mets, or the Tigres de Quintana Roo against the Sydney Blue Sox, but the World Series is an elite event on the global sports calendar. 

So, let your misplaced indignation rest, pick up a beer, and become ensconced in one of the greatest sporting spectacles of all.

**This article is intended as an update of an earlier piece penned for this blog back in October 2013. To that end, many of the interviews contained therein were completed in September 2013. This version should be viewed as an enrichment and an update. Thank you.

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