What’s with the World Baseball Classic .. just deja vu all over again?

Mar 13th, 2006 | By | Category: Sporting Life

The other day a friend from Australia who is seriously into cricket told me that a few decades ago the West Indies had some of the best cricket players in the world. But times have changed, and everyone in the West Indies plays baseball today. I thought of this again when I bumped into the opening acts of something new called the World Baseball Classic – whose championship game takes place Monday, March 20, in San Diego, California.

Baseball, you could say, is the American version of cricket (setting aside a so-called British girls’ game known as rounders). And cricket’s former sway in the West Indies was part of what used to be the greatest empire since Rome. So does the dominance of baseball in the West Indies today mean that the old democracy in America has quite ironically wound up managing the old empire it once revolted from, even if it still won’t quite admit it? First there was Greece, and then there was Rome. Then there was the United Kingdom, and now there is the United States? “History,” as the poet says, “has many cunning passages.” (And no wonder the rest of the world gets annoyed.)

The 16 competing countries (or places .. or something?)

In fact, the different places competing in the new 2006 World Baseball Classic do not fit any serious kind of new American empire theory. Six of the 16 countries involved are more or less in the West Indies, or at least the Caribbean (not counting the continental USA itself) – Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico (already part of the USA, sort of), and Venezuela. But you can’t say that Cuba and Venezuela are part of any new American empire … yet. It is also true that the other four places are all Spanish-speaking as opposed to English-speaking (though that is increasingly true of some parts of the USA today too).

There are the former self-governing British dominions of Australia, Canada, and South Africa. But all three have already been eliminated in Round 1 of the World Baseball Classic. (The whole thing burst onto the Canadian consciousness suddenly when Canada actually beat the United States 86 in Round 1, but a subsequent 91 Canadian defeat by Mexico ended this brief moment of glory abruptly.) The two teams from Western Europe – Italy and the Netherlands – were also eliminated in Round 1, along with China, Panama, and Taiwan (officially known as “Chinese Taipei” on the WBC website).

As matters stand, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the United States are now battling it out in Pool 1 of Round 2 (held in Anaheim, California), while Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela carry on in Pool 2 of Round 2 (held in San Juan, Puerto Rico). This will be followed by two semi-final games in San Diego, California on Saturday, March 18 (coincidentally also a day of protests against the Iraq War, up north in San Francisco and various other cities in the USA). And then there will be the final “World Cup” championship game in San Diego, on Monday, March 20.

If you think the United States is probably going to take this particular World Cup in the end, you could be right. According to an only somewhat jaundiced report in a Canadian newspaper, the entire World Baseball Classic “event … in its inaugural year” has been “designed to give the United States the easiest possible route through to the finals.” (Each of Canada, Mexico, and the United States won two games and lost one in Pool B of Round 1, e.g., but Canada was apparently eliminated because it had scored least on “allowing fewest runs per nine innings … allowing fewest earned runs per nine innings …. [and] highest batting average.” Or something like that.)

But the United States has now already been beaten once. And presumably that suggests it could be beaten again – even in the World Cup final on March 20.

(On the other hand, the United States is where baseball was invented and first perfected. And it still almost certainly has considerably more competent baseball players than any other country in the world. The game’s popularity in the wider global village has not progressed that far yet.)

The sporting-life politics you can never quite escape …

The exact array of more or less “national” teams that finally showed up for the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006 does suggest that the USA today is still not the kind of repressive and quasi-authoritarian domestic society which sometimes figures in extreme left-wing (or libertarian right-wing) imaginations. Or, the original democracy in America is not quite dead yet.

If the present administration in Washington altogether controlled everything inside the borders of the great republic, e.g., it is unlikely that teams from the present clearly anti-US regimes in Cuba and Venezuela would be involved. And as it happens there was something of a close call over Cuba. The story here has been tidily set down in a Wikipedia article, that is worth quoting from at some length.

To start with, the “Cuban National Team announced that they would not allow players who had defected to the United States to play in the major leagues to play on their team.” Then the “United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control denied the Cuban National Team a license to play due to the continuing U.S. embargo against Cuba.” Then “Cuban President Fidel Castro announced publicly that any profit made by Team Cuba in the Classic would be donated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

Meanwhile, “the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation had stated that it did not plan to hold games if Cuba was not allowed to participate.” And then on “January 6, 2006, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), baseball’s world governing body, also threatened to withdraw its sanctioning of the World Baseball Classic unless the Bush administration allowed Cuba to compete.” Finally, the “entire issue came to resolution … on January 20, 2006, when the U.S. Treasury Department issued a license to Team Cuba.”

The point still is that in the end even the present Bush administration could not and did not exclude Team Cuba, even if it would have liked to in its heart of hearts. The World Baseball Classic is organized by an arm of today’s Major League Baseball (MLB) known as World Baseball Inc., and that is not the same as the US government. The old American free and democratic system still works, in at least that degree.

It could similarly be said that the new American empire, insofar as it does exist, is more a captive than any real master of the early 21st century global village. The new American imperial eagle has arisen haphazardly, through vague repetitions of the law of unintended consequences over which no one has seriously presided. (That, you could say, is part of the problem.)

Thus the Wikipedia article also reports that: “The Taiwanese baseball team was originally listed as Taiwan and bearing the national flag [Republic of China], but, under political pressure from China, was later changed to Chinese Taipei and bearing the Chinese Taipei Olympic Flag [Chinese Taipei].”

(There is the case of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as well, of course – though as some Bush administration partisan has recently noted on the Net, rightly or wrongly or both: “Odd, that as popular’ as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is said to be, he’s so detested by Venezuelans that he can no longer go to baseball games without being booed by the whole stadium.”)

Is a World American Football Classic Next?

None of this finally amounts to sporting-life evidence against the new American empire theory. Great Britain is widely reported to have acquired its old “greatest empire since Rome … on which the sun never set,” etc., in “a fit of absence of mind” – and largely as “a system of outdoor relief for the upper classes,” etc.

And internally or domestically the United Kingdom at the height of its global empire was a notably free and open enough society, in at least certain ways. It proved to be, e.g., the only country in mid to late 19th century Europe where Karl Marx could live and carry on with his fiercely anti-capitalist writing and agitation in peace – mercifully including his paid contributions to Horace Greeley’s old New York Tribune.

And then again in both the United Kingdom and the United States enthusiasm for both the old and new incarnations of the anglophone global empire has never been altogether confined to the right wing of the political spectrum. It was the Democrats and not the Republicans who went into Vietnam in the first place. It was Bill Clinton who went into Bosnia and so forth.

(And at the present moment one of the reputed leading candidates in the new Liberal Party of Canada leadership race has been encouraging US foreign policy makers of any and all hues to embrace a noble and exciting new project called Empire Lite. He sometimes seems to have at least convinced the new minority Conservative prime minister of Canada. And Canada is now trying to help out by taking on a new and more dangerous mission in Afghanistan, just as it sent troops to the Boer War in the old British North American imperial salad days, under the old Canadian Conservative motto, “Ready, Aye, Ready.” Or, as the great Yogi Berra once said as well, “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.”)

So the whole political point is no doubt a lot more complicated than just turning George W. Bush into a lame-duck president for the next two-and-a-half years. In the very end, it probably makes most sense to look on the brighter sides of the new World Baseball Classic.

The wonderful thing about cricket, my friend from Australia also explained to me, is that it is such a relaxing game. Of all the big league sports in America today baseball no doubt still is the one that most closely approximates this ideal. It is the leisurely and relaxing traditional pastime of the old democracy in America – complete with a seventh-inning stretch. Even girls can play it well enough, though not together with boys of course. The real aggressively organized macho game of the new empire in America is football. And it was as a football cheerleader that George W. Bush first made his mark at Yale.

As long as it is just the World Baseball Classic in the ideally new free and democratic global village of someone’s dreams, there is probably still enough time to relax and enjoy the remaining Round 2 games on television, when and if the spirit moves you. It won’t really be time to worry desperately about the downside of the new empire until some dynamic US private sector enterprise tries to organize a World American Football Classic.

Meanwhile, it remains statistically possible that even in the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006 the United States might actually lose the final championship game in San Diego on March 20. (Or who knows at this exact moment? Maybe Team USA won’t even make it that far?) And for all those in the world who do not actually live inside the United States (and even some who do?) there are still enough good reasons to, as Jesse Jackson used to tell us, “Keep Hope Alive.”

SUNDAY, MARCH 19 UPDATE: So as it happens – and as nicely alluded to in the comments below – the World Baseball Classic 2006 has had some surprises. Team USA (like Team Canada and many others) did not quite make it to the semi-finals in San Diego yesterday, let alone the big game tomorrow. Baseball has apparently already become more of a world sport than most of us thought. And it will be Cuba and Japan fighting it our for the inaugural World Cup. Based on yesterday’s semi-final games, Monday night will be worth watching. (And, you could say, whoever wins it will probably be good for the international image of the new empire, that still says it’s just extending freedom [and now baseball too] throughout the globe  even in places like Fidel Castro’s Cuba.)

In the very end Japan beat Cuba 10-6 on Monday, March 20, to take the inaugural World Cup of baseball. The NY Times has reported on the game in detail.

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