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Nashville Scene Futureball

Internationalization lies ahead for baseball

By Randy Horick

APRIL 17, 2000:  I have seen the future of baseball. I don't know whether it works, to paraphrase Lincoln Steffens' premature pronouncement about early Soviet Russia, but we can safely say it's weird. Weird and ebullient and literally and figuratively foreign, all at once.

A couple of weeks ago, our national pastime opened its season in a nation other than ours.

In Japan, where the Mets and Cubs played the year's first two games, fans scarfed up all 90,000 tickets in just two hours. Japanese more accustomed to wearing caps of the Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows suddenly began wearing Chicago and New York hats. From the outfield fences they hung huge posters of Sammy Sosa, who has rapidly gained such a following in Japan (after homering in a 1998 exhibition there, Sammi-san bowed to each corner of the stadium) that he will earn several million dollars from endorsements in that country.

The whole baseball-mad country went even loopier for the week that the Cubs and Mets visited. And for the Americans, the tour was perhaps the most rewarding trip since the 1930s, when catcher Moe Berg of the visiting major-league all-star team (and a budding U.S. spy) snapped reconnaissance photos that later were used in planning the Doolittle Raid.

This time around, of course, the boardroom lords of the game have a different agenda. More significant--and almost without precedent--they have a coherent plan. Major League Baseball is going global.

The same logic that sent the Mets and Cubs flying across the Pacific brought big-league teams during the spring to Latin America. Baseball in these countries is more national passion than pastime.

When the major leaguers arrived for their exhibitions in the tropics, the fans' zeal for the game was evident in the raucous, resounding cheers not only for native-born stars like Boston's Pedro Martinez (Dominican Republic) and Atlanta's Andres Gallaraga (Venezuela) but for the yanqui players, too.

Most surreal of all was the throng of young Venezuelans begging autographs from John Rocker, whose brain-wheels must have seized up as he attempted to reconcile his adoring welcome with his views on "foreigners."

Like it or not--and I like it--this is baseball's future. The teams may remain mostly here, but the major leagues will increasingly have an international presence. That's only fitting, since the reverse has been true for years: Through their players, other nations have been part of, even dominated, American baseball.

In the coming years, traveling to Tokyo or Monterrey or Santo Domingo for opening day won't even be the half of it. Probably sooner rather than later, we'll see baseball's version of the World Cup--a world World Series--with major leaguers representing their native countries.

You can imagine some of the headlines:

"El Duque, Livan Pitch Cuba to Sweep of U.S."

"Pedro Leads Dominicans to Second Straight Cup."

"Americans Bomb Japan." (You know that's a politically incorrect line waiting to happen.)

The internationalization of major league baseball will be a natural and positive thing. The sport, often sown by American troops in Caribbean and Central American countries they occupied, may be the best legacy of our country's imperialist era.

Baseball diplomacy, tentatively attempted last year, could even help improve our relations with Cuba, whose dictator once spun a nasty fastball. (If nothing else, a baseball mondial would allow us to deride the weenie-armed French, Germans, and Brazilians the way fans in thosefutbol-minded countries make fun of our World Cup soccer entries.)

Taking major league baseball to other countries, of course, is not a goodwill gesture by the suits who run the game. The lords of baseball make it a point, if only for the sake of upholding their reputation, not to let people expect goodwill from them.

Christening the season in Japan was a business trip. Attendance at major league games in the United States and Canada may be trending downward, but the owners have discovered that baseball has new worlds, not to mention lucrative new markets, to conquer. In Japan, TV revenues for American baseball have ballooned by 300 percent during the past five years, while revenues from sponsorships have grown at least 700 percent.

Of course, with money as the master, and the present owners as masters of the money, there's every reason to believe that baseball here will just get weirder instead of better.

Along with the vision of the brothers Hernandez pitching for Cuba's world cup squad (as long as they didn't have to return to Cuba to do it), a lot of even stranger scenarios for the future may present themselves. I can see it now:

December 2003 Since Ken Griffey Jr. won his legal case against baseball a year ago and can now use an aluminum bat, most sluggers have followed his example. Across the major leagues, team batting averages have risen 35 points and home run production is up 27 percent.

December 2004 To shorten games, which now last an average of 4 hours, 18 minutes, commissioner Bud Selig announces that managers can make pitching changes only between innings and may not visit the mound.

July 1, 2005 Boston slugger Mark McGwire misses a chance to hit his record-breaking 756th career home run in Yankee Stadium. Mayor Al Sharpton, citing concerns for public safety, ordered that no fans be admitted to the Red Sox-Yankees game during Big Mac's home run chase. (In Boston, 11 fans were seriously injured during a melee that erupted amid the scramble for homer No. 754.) Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and baseball Commissioner George Will seek a restraining order against Sharpton, forcing postponement of the Red Sox-Yankees series.

July 8, 2005 McGwire hits No. 756 in Puerto Rico off Pedro Astacio of the San Juan Twins. Thanks to CNN's round-the-clock "MacWatch," the game is seen by more people than any other event in human history. Astacio, who owns a respectable 6.54 earned-run average, signs a book deal worth $5 million.

August 2008 Hoping to reverse the steady decline in pitching that has helped homers to double in the past five years, Commissioner Will announces plans to phase out the designated hitter. "It's merely a crutch," he declares, "for sluggers who are too old, fat, and slow to play in the field." The Players Association, joined by AARP, sue Major League Baseball, arguing that abolishing the DH represents age and obesity discrimination and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

December 2009 Padres owner Garth Brooks is named baseball's new commissioner. "We think it will do wonders for sales," says Braves owner Ted Turner. "Garth is the consummate entertainer who will involve us more in cross-marketing. And it doesn't hurt that he knows a little about the game."

May 2011 Faced with an acute shortage of quality pitching caused by baseball's international expansion (the home run total has doubled since 2008), Commissioner Brooks offers a radical proposal: Replace pitchers with machines during games and add an extra infielder. "We considered tee-ball, but that's not quite challenging enough for big-league hitters," Brooks deadpans.

Fellow owners immediately hail the proposal as a means to reduce payroll expenses for owners, eliminate beanball wars, and improve pitching. St. Louis' Rick Ankiel, who sports baseball's best ERA (4.43) serves as spokesman for the players, who announce they will strike if the plan is adopted.

April 2015 Opening day for the National League's newest franchise, the Havana Hurricanes. Before a crowd of 100,000 in Microsoft Field, general manager Juan Miguel Gonzales watches with mixed emotions as the hometown nine blank the Florida Marlins 4-0. The Hurricane's win spoils the debut of the Marlins' pitcher, a Miami phenom named Elian.

Yogi, as usual, had it called all along. "The future," he said, "ain't what it used to be."

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