When the World Baseball Classic kicked off last year there were snorts of derision from a number of sources. Critics claimed that baseball wasn’t really a global game and that outside the Americas and Japan and perhaps Latin America, no one would really care. Some participating nations didn’t even have an amateur league to draw on for talent and they fielded teams of people who make their living in other fields (copier salesmen and the like). Yet the Classic went on, and maybe it gave the game the global shot in the arm that it needed.
As I’ve traveled the world during the last sixteen months I have seen things that have shocked me when it came to the baseball world, things that have changed my thoughts about the impact of the game on the global stage. While baseball may have originated on our shores it has taken on a life of its own in other nations. While it’s true that it’s not a major sport worldwide like soccer or basketball, it crops up in all sorts of places around the world both historically and in a current context.
Recently while on the island of Culion in the Philippines I came across a photo of a Sunday baseball game being played in the 1920s. Maybe by itself that isn’t remarkable, the Philippines were an American possession back in those days, but what made the photo special was something a little bit different. You see the photo was taken on the island at the largest leper colony the world has ever seen, and the players in the game were all suffering from advanced cases of leprosy.
Just a few thousand miles away in the land down under, where baseball is mistakenly thought to be just a minor sport, a video reel from the 1930s at the Sydney Maritime Museum shows Japanese servicemen playing the game during their off time before WW II.
Further south in Rotorua, New Zealand, a place famous for geothermal activity, where the lakes boil and steam hisses from cracks in a earth, a sign catches my eye. It’s a facility featuring a half dozen batting cages. The manager explains that New Zealanders don’t play baseball just softball, then he tosses me one of the balls to examine. It’s not softball as we know it, but a baseball sized rubber ball rather than a leather one.
On the road a Danish traveler tells me about a friend and countryman who just moved to the United States to play in the minor leagues for the Detroit Tigers. An Australian tells me about a family friend from Brisbane who is playing in the minors for the White Sox. In Singapore a man asks me about Big Papi Ortiz and informs me “he’s the greatest” and everywhere I go I’m asked if I’m a Yankees or Mets fan.
Thousands of miles further along the road I find myself in Jordan on the edge of the Red Sea and I stumble across a father and son throwing a baseball around on the beach. A handful of kilometers up the road a there is a media storm about the inaugural season of Israel’s first professional baseball league. And it’s not the only place in the world with developing baseball leagues and talent.
In China a tiny professional baseball league is still in its fledgling state (having kicked off in 2005) and though it only draws just a handful of fans per game the numbers are growing. In Australia the similarities to cricket and the fascination with the American game has an estimated 60,000 people playing baseball for some 5000+ amateur teams* and the Australian Baseball Federation is launching a national competition later the year.
The next few years should see baseball leagues and games, including Major League games around the world. Major League Baseball is investing millions of dollars across the globe and many teams are sharing the word of baseball via their charitable foundations in places as remote as Cambodia or as poor as Haiti.
These are all just tiny pieces in the great mosaic of the global game of baseball, with pieces anchored firmly in the past and others loosely patterned towards the future. Nations are proud of athletes who have made it as far of the minor leagues or have even just been drafted by Major League teams. We’ve seen the hype of Ichiromania, but did you realize it has been the same (albeit on a smaller scale) for players like Barry Armitage (South Africa) or Graham Lloyd (Australia)? Players like these aren’t just curious footnotes, but national news for those countries. These players are inspiring others to follow in their footsteps and for others to take the time to gain some knowledge of the game.
*estimates taken from Wikipedia based on 2003 numbers.
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