Alex Rodriguez steps to the plate, bottom of the ninth, two out, two on, his team down by one. The crowd rises to its feet, screaming -- half of them, it seems, in Spanish. He swings and misses, takes two balls, fouls one off, watches another, and here it is, full count, world championship on the line. The windup, the pitch -- a nasty cut fastball from fearsome closer Mariano Rivera....
Hold on -- Mariano Rivera? Aren't he and A-Rod both New York Yankees? Not in this game, they're not. Next March, if all goes well, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Assn. will co-host a World Cup-style tournament christened the World Baseball Classic. Teams representing 16 nations will vie for the title in an event that will feature the best players on the planet competing for national bragging rights. So Rivera would play for his native Panama, while A-Rod, intriguingly, would be eligible to represent either the U.S. or his parents' homeland, the Dominican Republic.
The tourney represents the crowning effort thus far in MLB's push to globalize baseball, open new markets, and widen the pool of talent. "It will allow more people around the world to learn the game," says Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets.
But will all go well? At the moment, imponderables hang over the Classic like a towering pop fly. MLB, which first announced the event in May -- giving itself less than 10 months to pull it off -- will reveal final details on July 11 during the All-Star break. Japan, after lengthy negotiations, had not agreed to terms as of June 29, though MLB officials say an accord is imminent. Baseball-mad Cuba is a political hot potato. Then there's the matter of whether the world will do more than yawn at a quadrennial tourney in which such powerhouses as Italy or South Africa square off against the U.S. or the Dominican Republic.
Finally, there are bread-and-butter issues: Do MLB owners really want their most valuable assets taking three weeks off from spring training and risking injury, and will first-rank players be eager to join in? "The real question in my mind is whether the superstars will show up -- the Barry Bondses, the Derek Jeters," says Neal H. Pilson, former head of CBS Sports and president of Pilson Communications Inc., a TV sports consulting firm in Chappaqua, N.Y.
MLB insiders and union officials insist that owners and players couldn't be more committed. Timothy J. Brosnan, MLB's executive vice-president for business operations, says "it was a wrestling match to get all the owners into the ring at the same time, but now they're there." Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the union, grants that some players hate the plan because it will disrupt their spring training routine and that some will probably opt out. But "the overwhelming majority support the idea," he adds. "The American team is going to be awesome."
`SPREAD THE GREAT GAME'
One reason megastars may line up to play is the chance to project themselves on a global stage -- and thus boost their attractiveness to multinational sponsors. David M. Carter, head of the Sports Business Group consultancy in Redondo Beach, Calif., refers to the "halo effect" players will enjoy from "helping to spread the great game of baseball." Roger Clemens, the Houston Astros fireballer and a possible selection for the U.S. team, says he'd happily take the mound. "When you have a chance to represent your country, you're talking about a whole different type of pride," he says. "This is a deal where you're going to commit to it to protect the game you love and show 'em why we're the best of the best."
It's precisely that tried-and-true combo -- athletic prowess intertwined with nationalism -- that baseball is counting on to capture imaginations. In light of political tensions past and present, the Asian group (China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) promises the hottest rivalries in the first round. And a Cuba-U.S. contest would be a public-relations bonanza. That presumes Fidel Castro accepts MLB's invitation and the Cubans are granted visas by the Bush Administration. A State Dept. official says that as long as the event is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation -- which it is -- "we tend to permit these sports exchanges to take place." Plus, he adds, "it gives opportunities for the Cubans to defect and enrich our baseball environment." As much as that prospect must worry Fidel, the Cuban fan-in-chief may find the Classic an offer he can't refuse.
For their part, MLB owners are weighing the intangibles of greater global interest in baseball against the very real chances of injury. The Mets' Wilpon says that he'll encourage his stars to participate, partly reassured by special insurance policies that the Classic will take out. "We're trying to minimize the risks," he says. "There will be insurance, travel restrictions, limits on how many innings a pitcher can pitch. But to say there won't be any risks would be an overstatement."
Taking more risks on the global basepaths may be just what baseball needs. For 15 years, MLB has been trying to promote the sport abroad, with middling success. Big-league clubs now play regular-season games every year in foreign countries such as Japan and Mexico. Retail sales abroad of MLB-licensed merchandise have grown from less than $50 million in 1995 to nearly $250 million in 2004. Some 112 nations now have baseball federations, more than double the number in 1987. But baseball still lags behind basketball, let alone soccer, as a sport played professionally around the world.
It's true that big-league lineups have been globalizing at a rapid clip. On Opening Day of the 2005 season, more than 29.2% of all players on 25-man Major League rosters were foreign-born. So were 43.5% of all players under contract to MLB clubs -- that is, including the minor leagues -- and they hailed from 33 countries. The game's biggest draws now include such players as the Seattle Mariners' hitting phenom Ichiro Suzuki, who would play for Japan, and the Mets' quirky Dominican ace, Pedro Martinez.
That ongoing globalization helped convince owners and players that it was worth investing the $50 million it will cost to put on the Classic, according to industry sources, with MLB and the Players Assn. splitting the tab. Each of the 16 teams will have its expenses paid and will share in whatever profits the Classic turns. Overall broadcast rights, experts say, will likely go to one of MLB's current TV partners: ESPN, Fox, or Turner Sports. TV sports consultant Pilson predicts that the rights fee for the first Classic will be modest. But Sports Business Group's Carter expects sponsor interest to be robust: "Marketers who are working with MLB will want to sign on for consistency of message. If you're Pepsi, you don't want Coke coming in and doing this."
MLB is confident the revenue from broadcast rights, sponsorship, and merchandise will more than cover the Classic's costs. "Our estimates would have to be way off for this to run at a loss," says Brosnan. But he adds that the real return from putting on the Classic in a nine-month rush will be the lessons to apply to future tourneys. "We've told our ownership more than once: We have to do this the first time in order to do it the second." In this at-bat, MLB would be happy with a solid line-drive single to center.
By Harry Maurer in New York, with Mark Hyman in Baltimore and Lorraine Woellert in Washington