Baseball in the Olympics

Yesterday Jayson Stark at ESPN posted an Insider article about Major League Baseball’s chance of rejoining the Olympics.  The seed for the article is the fact that more Americans watched the Canada-United States gold medal hockey game than watched the World Series (apparently).  He asks if baseball could replicate that kind of attention with Olympic participation.  He decides that baseball will not and should not, and his reasoning, backed up with quotes from Bud Selig, falls into these points:

  • You can’t suspend the baseball season the way the NHL suspended its season for the Olympics.  The summer games happen in August or September, which is too critical of a time for baseball.
  • You can’t suspend the baseball season because fitting in 162 games while keeping the playoffs from going into November would then be impossible.
  • You cannot shorten the baseball season because of the hit that would deal to baseball’s finances.
  • America understands and enjoys the Summer Games more, and baseball would not stand out in the Summer Games the way hockey stands out in the Winter Games.

Fair points, all.  He goes on to advocate for the WBC to be concluded during the All-Star break, which is a fun idea.  I’ve written about the WBC here before, but a couple of thoughts about an approach to letting professional players participate in the Olympics (should baseball be readmitted, of course).

The crux of the idea: let major league players leave their teams in order to play in the Olympics.

The cons:

  • Teams would lose their best players for a critical stretch of the season.
  • The impact on teams would be uneven (some might lose 5 best players, others might lose none).
  • Teams lose revenue, theoretically, from loss of star players.
  • Tension created between a country wanting a specific player, that player’s desire, and an owner not wanting the player to leave the team.
  • Team tension between a player wanting to leave for the Olympics, and teammates who view it as a selfish decision.
  • Taxing a pitcher mid-season, increasing chance of injury or fatigue for the playoffs.

(Notice how I started each ‘con’ with the letter T?  That’s the mark of a good, coherent thesis.)

Here are some thoughts for doing this anyway:

  • First, the Olympics are every four years, so this would not be a frequent problem.
  • Baseball currently has an image problem.  The Olympic spirit of selfless patriotism could inject baseball with story lines and personalities the game could use to counter its money-and-steroids image.
  • I think we underestimate both fans and teammates’ respect for a player being selected to, and playing for, their national team.  Evidence of this can be found in the Penguins-Sabers game yesterday, when the Pittsburgh crowd gave Ryan Miller a bigger standing ovation than it gave Sidney Crosby.
  • Nobody wants to tax an athlete into injury, but at some point you have to just let them play.  These are world-class athletes, and there is a chance of injury whether they play in Pittsburgh or Perth.  Pitcher coddling can be taken too far.
  • A fundamental part of sports is its ability to generate inspiring stories of courage and respect amidst competition.  For every fan who respects Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game, there is a fan who respects Sandy Koufax for not pitching on Yom Kippur.  Allowing MLB players to leave their teams to play in the Olympics has the potential to generate defining moments in the history of the sport.
  • Example: Imagine if the Phillies and the Mets are tied for first place on August 1st.  Johan Santana, David Wright, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley all leave for 2 weeks to play in the Olympics, with an unspoken nod to each other that they will have unfinished business when they return.  That story would linger beyond whatever transpired that summer, and be a moment both those players and baseball can point to with pride.

Sadly, I don’t think it will happen, and the WBC is probably hurting baseball’s chance of even being reinstated into the Olympics.  But it is nice to daydream about great acts of national pride in which millionaires forsake money to play their favorite sport in the most heralded athletic competition in the history of homo sapiens.

Global World Series is a Great Idea

ESPN posted this brief article about the idea of a Global World Series.  Actually, what they mean is a series between the winner of the World Series and their Japanese counterparts.

The Players Union would have to agree to this, and no doubt there will be concerns over extending the already-too-long baseball season, travel time, and potential injuries.  I’m not a big fan of fixing what isn’t broken (see: Interleague Play), but I think this is a great idea.

Japanese players can play their style or ours

Baseball has lost its preeminent place in the American sporting scene to football.  Yet it’s the bees knees in Japan.  That country loves baseball, and if the last two World Baseball Classics are proof of anything, they’re really good at it.  Major League Baseball should embrace Japan as a partner in the lovely hobby of baseball love.

Here’s how to go about this.  First, tidy up the MLB season and particularly the playoffs so that the World Series ends in October.  The Japanese league championship is also held in October, so timing works.  Pacific Ocean travel is exhausting and time-consuming, so the 7-game series should alternate years between a Japanese and an American venue.  Because this is an international exhibition, and weather is a problem in November, the American series should not be played in the home stadium of the World Series winner, but rather a rotating venue with little chance of rain or snow-outs.  Baseball can cherry pick its venues (Seattle, Los Angeles) at first to ensure good attendance until the concept gains momentum.

Speaking only for myself, I’d love to watch this series.  I want to know who the best players are in Japan, and I want to see them compete against Americans.  The World Baseball Classic does not reliably set that up often enough.  This might also help stem the tide of Japanese players coming to the US.  As much as I love Ichiro!, America’s money and (allegedly) higher caliber of play is threatening to reduce the Japanese leagues into a farm system.  Letting Japanese players with “the zeal of a challenger” get their fix in this series might be enough to prevent them from bailing on their homeland league.

There are some problems with the idea.  First, it will undermine the WBC’s current monopoly on international baseball competition.  Second, finding an American city interested in a 7-game series between a Japanese team and not their hometown team may be problematic.  But as the 2008 World Series showed, nothing takes the wind out of a series’ sails like horrible weather.  I think it’s worth taking the hit in attendance in order to ensure playable conditions.  Furthermore, I expect the money in this for the MLB is in television rights, not seat prices.  So price it cheaply until it gets big.

Here’s my personal data point: I hate the Yankees, and was very unhappy that they won the 2009 World Series.  Yet if Philly had a domed stadium, I would buy a $50 ticket to watch the Yankees play in Philly against the Japanese champions.  File that away, MLB marketing drones.

I would be surprised if this happens, because I think the Players Union will not like it.  A team that just won the World Series will not want to fly to Japan for two weeks immediately afterward.  But as a fan I’d love to watch that matchup, it contains the potential for great baseball and international bragging rights, and would be an important step in baseball’s embrace of the international baseball community.