The book: “Baseball Beyond Our Borders: An International Pastime”
The author: Edited by George Gmelch and Daniel Nathan
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Press, 528 pages, $24.95, released March 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Barnes & Noble, at the publishers’ website
The pitch: The once-every-four-year arrival of the World Baseball Classic last month still has us applauding, contemplating and somewhat confused.
The two high-intensity semifinals and the lopsided U.S. win in the championship at Dodger Stadium should be something of a measure of how the American game has taken root in other countries.
It is, of course, not that way.
Teams like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico may have been filled with current Major League Baseball players, and the squad from Israel was simply loaded up with U.S. Jewish players — minus Ryan Braun or Joc Pederson – who had no ties to their homeland.
Was this a cultural celebration within the MLB, or a real olive-branch extension to teams that were really playing by the implied guidelines? Japan may have had the closest to a true star-picked team for its roster, but the U.S. certainly didn’t, and still won.
How can it be fixed?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon suggests mashing it up with the World Series. Yankees manager Joe Girardi wonders if it could be part of a week-long event meshed with the All-Star Game.
At least they’re trying to make it work. But they’re kind of missing the point.
Ten years after the first edition of this book, Gmelch, a college anthropology professor and former pro player, has brought on Nathan, the chair of American studies at Skidmore College and past president of the North American Society for Sports History, to reassess the game’s global standing among 19 nations, plus Puerto Rico and Tasmania.
They are resigned to the findings that growth has “been glacially and spotty, characterized by periods of sound organization interrupted by stagnation, internal strife and national events such as war and economic crisis. … Major League Baseball International has spent a great deal of money trying to promote baseball in Europe with little to show for it.”
Which grinds us back to the WBC, and wondering if it serves the sport’s best interest.
That question is posed by Robert Elias, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and author of three baseball books, who writes in Chapter 23 about the conflicts and contradictions of the WBC.
The MLB may have created it after basically ignoring U.S. support during the time when baseball was apart of the Summer Olympics, and now it is trying to capitalize on it with its own American-centric tournament.
The WBC’s meaning and purpose doesn’t line up much with how the MLB markets itself abroad, more than it markets the actual sport, Elias points out. The teams in the WBC are picked by the MLB, plying that this ensures MLB control and prosperity and makes this nothing more than a high-level tryout camp for MLB prospects. It will never be a true World Series as long as the MLB keeps that name for itself.
We’d be interested to see if Elias had any sort of follow up to this, having seen the resent results. Our guess is that the Team America victory would actually signal a step back in the progress of the event, which seemed to bring the most energy when other countries were doing well, and then there was the mess with how Team Mexico was unceremoniously prevented from a first-round playoff based on some strange interpretations of the total run rules in place.
Those who write snapshot essays about baseball in a particular country often have some expertise in the subject based on previous works. Their accounts are often better visuals than what we would otherwise get from a player who comes from a particular country to play in the MLB and tries to explain it himself.
And as for the title, they agree that the first edition called “Baseball Without Borders” was a little misleading. Baseball does have its borders that affect the games inside the countries and can be very limiting. For that reason, changing the title to “Baseball Beyond Our Borders” is more accurate.
“Will Big League Baseball Survive? Globalization, The End of Television, Youth Sports and the Future of Major League Baseball,” by Lincoln A. Mitchell, came out last December from Temple University books (208 pages, $24.95) with a rather provocative headline that has an easy answer.
Yes, “big league baseball” will still be around, but in what form down the road, we can make only educated guesses based on economic forces rather than actual growth of the game.
In one form or another, big league baseball is in decent survival mode, even as a generic term for Major League Baseball, the branded corporation that wants to be both the 800-pound gorilla and the elephant in the room.
When you put something out there like that in a somewhat provocative book title, the implication is that maybe something you never considered could happen, so it must be imperative to read up on it to be prepared for the worst.
Mitchell, listed as a scholar and writer based in New York City on the book jacket as well as a “pundit and specialist in political development” also tied to San Francisco from his website, is more or less an invested fan and advocate of the game who has opinions, based on his research and knowledge. That’s what we’re working with here.
If the MLB’s R&D weren’t already pondering all of these questions, then Mitchell is here to supply his guestimation based on his field of employment as well as his love of the game.
It’s not as if Mitchell goes out on any profound limbs to forecast a game that doesn’t look like anything we see now. It’s just that it opens the discussion to how things could end up if the MLB suddenly stopped being somewhat proactive about who watches its games what will happen if it doesn’t continue to adjust to changes in technology and media coverage.
“This book is not a criticism of baseball,” Mitchell writes in the preface. “It is probably more accurately understood as a celebration of the game. It is also, however, an analysis of the structures that frame how baseball is played at its most competitive and lucrative levels and a discussion of whether those structures can remain in place, largely unchanged over the next decades.
“Baseball may be eternal, but MLB in its current form may not be.”
If the MLB wasn’t flexible it might still be all white, stayed in the Northwest and the Midwest past the 1960s, and “would have lost much of its stature fifty or sixty years ago.”
Mitchell also takes a more optimistic look at the World Baseball Classic and its possible impact, wondering if 30 years from now if “the MLB could be much smaller, more more international or more a hybrid of league, tournament and exhibition play. Ultimately whether that constitutes survival is a subjective question.”
The cost of Mitchell’s book, which is categorized as one that should be shelved under sports, business and economics and sociology, is listed as $19.95.
Here’s a $20. Keep the change.
== Another new book related to this: “Kill the Ámpaya! The Best Latin American Baseball,” edited and translated by Dick Cluster