BOSTON — Baseball's World Series will end soon, or will it? On Oct. 31, a major-league all-star team will begin an eight-game exhibition series against a team of Japanese stars in Japan. Some might say this is closer to a true world series than what now passes for one.
Major League Baseball is careful not to equate this tour in any way with its "fall classic," which currently pits the Atlanta Braves against the New York Yankees.
Bud Selig, Major League Baseball's acting commissioner, casts the trip as a vehicle for growing the sport, not for establishing a world champion. "This is another bold expression of our commitment to expand the game on the international scene," he says.
Many fans probably don't realize that Major League Baseball has sent an all-star squad to Japan four times since 1986. Its record is 18-8-4, a mark that demonstrates that the Japanese are "in the ballpark" competitively.
"Japan is the most advanced [baseball] nation after the United States," says Wayne Morgan, director of international scouting for the Toronto Blue Jays. "They have enough good pitching to give us [Major League Baseball] a battle. Our position players seem to be bigger and stronger and have more power, but pitching is control and change of speed, things the Japanese have refined."
Although no one places too much importance in the results of the Japanese tour, sponsored by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, Major League Baseball clearly intends to maintain the upper hand. It is sending some of its best players: Cal Ripken Jr., Albert Belle, Ken Griffey Jr., and Tom Glavine among others. The team is not a US national team and includes several Latin American players.
Major League Baseball has long attracted Latin talents to its shores and now is beginning to tap the Pacific Rim. Last year the Dodgers made Hideo Nomo only the second Japanese player to appear in the majors. More significantly, he was named the National League Rookie of the Year and this season hurled a no-hitter against Colorado.
The Dodgers are leaders in global outreach (they conducted postseason tours to Asia in 1956, 1966, and 1993). Their president, Peter O'Malley, is director of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
"Virtually everything that has been done in the area of international baseball has the fingerprint of the Dodger organization," says Robert Smith, past president of the International Baseball Association. This includes getting baseball into the Olympics, which is probably the sport's most visible international competition.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics it was a non-medal, demonstration sport. Its popularity there and perhaps the fact that the US didn't win paved the way for promotion to medal status beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In Atlanta, the powerful Cubans, who monopolize amateur baseball, won their second gold medal.
The problem with Olympic baseball is that eligibility rules have prevented most of the world's top players from participating. In 1994, the International Baseball Association narrowly rejected a proposal to allow professional players into the Olympics. That so displeased the Olympic brass, including International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samarach, that baseball's Olympic future was said to be in jeopardy if a rule change wasn't passed. The issue was revisited this year in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the decision reversed.
Skip Bertman, the US Olympic coach, is not convinced that anybody knows what will happen at the 2000 Sydney Games. "They don't have a plan on how to get the best players in the Olympics," he says. "They may have to play minor leaguers and retired major leaguers." Here's the dilemma: The Sydney Olympics are being held Sept. 16-Oct. 1, right as the season-long pennant races are heating up. No contending team would want to excuse a key player, and division races could be skewed even if players from noncontenders were given an Olympic leave.
Baseball is deeply rooted in tradition, and even the most optimistic observers don't anticipate a true world series with league champions any time soon. At the moment, the best annual international competition may be that of Little League, which boasts 3 million players in 80 countries.