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03/24/09 2:11 PM ET
Classic is growing to maturity
By all accounts, second staging of the tournament a success
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- There was a symphony on the field on Monday night before the World Baseball Classic final, during which three national anthems -- Japanese, Korean and American -- were played. And after the game was over, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was still hearing that sweet music. The three games played at Dodger Stadium drew 141,834, with a Classic-record, nonstop-roaring 54,846 on hand for Japan's thrilling, 5-3 title win in 10 innings. Not since Kirk Gibson homered in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, giving the Dodgers a come-from-behind victory over the A's, had the now-48-year-old building been so shaken to its rafters. Now that Major League Baseball and the Players Association turn to thoughts of staging the Classic in 2013, it's no wonder McCourt wants to host the semifinals and final again. "Dodger Stadium is the perfect place for this, considering the diversity of the community in Los Angeles," McCourt said. "This experience has been beyond my wildest expectations." Artistically and financially, the second running of the Classic appeared to be a success. Television ratings in the U.S. were up by 30 percent. In Asia, each of the five Japan-Korea games played to TV audiences of gigantic proportions. Attendance for the tournament's 39 games soared, to 801,408 -- up from 737,112 in 2006. But the games really hit their stride in Los Angeles, where McCourt said the Classic suddenly reached a maturity that may serve it well across generations. No city in the world may equally represent the nature of the four Classic finalists -- Japan, Korea, the U.S. and Venezuela -- like the City of Angels. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, released in 2007, of the nearly 10 million people living in Los Angeles County, 47 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are Asian and 29 percent are Caucasian. In a five-block area just west of downtown known as Koreantown, the population is 350,000. The Japanese population is the largest anywhere in the world outside the Land of the Rising Sun. It may be only a metaphor, but all of them seemed jammed into Dodger Stadium on Monday night, when the Japanese team did a victory lap around the field after the trophy and medal presentation, carrying a huge white Japanese flag with the signature sun emblazoned on it. In the aftermath, Commissioner Bud Selig basked in the glow of all this glory. "I told a group of owners tonight that it reminds me of when we did revenue sharing, the Wild Card, Interleague Play, all these things," Selig said after presenting Japan with its trophy for the second time in two Classics. "People always have significant trepidations and skepticism. But they've all worked out. "Obviously, this tournament is very different. You're asking people to step out of patterns. But when you watch what we've seen for the last three days, you've got to be grateful for everything that's happened. I'm grateful." Spinning forward, there is certainly some work to be done. The steering committee will take a hard look at the double-elimination format of the first two rounds, with an eye toward perhaps condensing the schedule. "From an aesthetic sense, the double-elimination format works well," said Don Fehr, the executive director of the union. "But from a sales sense, it may have made it more difficult for some fans to figure out what game they wanted to go to and plan for, because they didn't know who was going to be playing who when." The Commissioner said again earlier in the weekend that March was really the only time to stage the tournament. Selig nixed the idea of a possible longer break in July to replace the All-Star Game every four years, saying that he wouldn't ask the owners to give up those choice home dates, when school is out and attendance is at its peak. He reiterated that November isn't feasible, because a majority of players already will have wound down for about a month as the postseason transpires. "The time of year is always the conundrum," Fehr said. "In one sense, [March] is not a particularly good time, because you're not into the season, and people are not in peak playing condition. Players who have worked out or played winter ball for two months are way ahead of those who haven't. But almost every other time of the year is worse. And so it would be difficult to move it." And what impact will all of this international success have on the movement to restore baseball to the Summer Olympics? As of now, the sport is out for the 2012 London Games, but a contingent of Major League Baseball and international officials are lobbying the International Olympic Committee hard for a return in 2016. A key vote of the IOC is coming up in June, when a committee will make its recommendation on seven sports, including baseball, that have applied for inclusion. If baseball clears that hurdle, the final vote will come at a meeting of the IOC Congress in October. The basic issue is the same one that Selig resists in regard to moving the Classic in-season. There seems to be little will to take a break so that MLB's best players can perform at that time of the year in international competition. "The international world keeps saying we need to bring our best players," said Harvey Schiller, the president of the International Baseball Federation, which sanctions the Classic. "I keep saying to them, 'OK, tell me who they are, because they exist everywhere.' It's not just players on the 40- or 25-man Major League rosters, it's players all over the world. "We've told them that we're dedicated to bringing these best players to the 2016 Games." Then there's the move to expand the pool of nations for the third running of the Classic. The initial idea is to expand from the current 16 teams to, perhaps, 24, with play-in rounds across the globe as the preliminary to the pool of 16. That may seem antithetical to the concept of tightening up the tournament, but the more nations that are involved, the more baseball grows. About 50 percent of the revenue generated by the Classic is dispersed to the participating nations or commonwealths, thus helping fund the growth of baseball in each of those lands. The logistics of that decision are still to be determined, said Paul Archey, MLB's vice president of international business operations. "We will expand," Archey said. "We've not determined a set number yet. But we need to figure out the best way to expand, since we want more countries involved." And, finally, despite a focus on the players who chose not to participate in the tournament rather than the ones who did, Fehr said that many more showed interest this time around than in 2006 and that even more will do so next time. "There's always issues that develop, and we'll have to take a hard look at those," he said. "But nothing is perfect in this world. We'll do the best we can." Added Selig: "The players who have played in this tournament, and there have been a lot of them -- Derek Jeter comes to mind -- someday, when they realize how much they helped this sport go international and the role they played, they're going to feel pretty good about themselves and what they did for their sport." Perhaps nothing may be perfect, but there certainly seemed to be a sense of well being on Monday night. From the first strings of symphonic music to the last fabulous pitch, it was international baseball all grown up to its very best.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.