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Who’s on first? What we can learn from Israel's success at the World Baseball Classic

Roar Pro
21st March, 2017
4

What is the point of a competition when the winner has already been decided? After writing my baseball-cricket article, inspired by my son’s dual American and Australian identity, the thought crossed my mind with the World Baseball Classic now underway.

Watching various world cups and other tournaments may be exciting, but anyone who follows certain competitions can narrow down the small group of teams most likely to take home the gold.

With football, funding is the biggest issue for smaller countries, which produce players that inevitably get poached by larger, more lucrative markets.

Not entirely analogous is the Cricket World Cup. If you are not from a traditional cricket-playing nation and do not have enough financial backing, the results remain skewed in favour of the usual suspects.

For example, when there was less money in the game and before basketball poached the tall, would-be cricketers, the West Indies had a strong and vibrant Test side. With respect to their Twenty20 abilities, their Test skills have seemingly gone by the wayside.

However, it does not have to be this way. When a sport has limited appeal outside of its traditional markets, it forces creativity.

Currently, many countries are competing in the World Baseball Classic (more or less the baseball world cup), including all the usual suspects, but also an unexpected Cinderella story.

Of the 16 teams that started, including Australia, only half made it to the next round. Those are lower odds than the Cricket World Cup, which advances four of seven teams from each pool (around 57%).

Yes, the US, Japan, Korea, and many Latin American countries where baseball is popular are competing, but two names that made it to the quarter-finals clearly stand out from the list: the Netherlands and Israel.

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Israel went 3-0 and the Netherlands 2-1 in Pool A, which eliminated traditional powerhouse Korea. This should not have happened and most likely would not have in any other major sport’s world cup.

But the WBC is different. Its rules state that any person eligible for citizenship to a country may also be eligible to play for that country.

This means that people with a parent, grandparent, or other means of legal citizenship to that nation are eligible to represent it.

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There is something to be said about a flexible view of identity in competitions like this. Yes, it is also important that we maintain a clear sense of identity, because difference – i.e. my team versus your team – is at the heart of competition.

However, in this case, baseball players (largely American) of Dutch or Jewish descent have not only been able to represent the country of their ancestry but also open up these countries to a sport that would otherwise not be popular there.

Both Israel and the Netherlands are traditionally football-following countries, but there are legitimate opportunities to grow the game there and any country in a similar situation, because this rule provides each nation with a fighting chance at the top level.

Israel has a population of 8 million or so people, but there’s a global Jewish population of around 15 million. The Netherlands has 16.8 million pairs of eyeballs as well. These are real opportunities at growing a sport in places that otherwise would have little to no interest or exposure. To add to this, Israel baseball team hats are reported to be sold out all over Japan and Korea.

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Some would argue that this allows for nations to bring in ‘ringers’ that do not truly belong to their country’s landscape, but this could not be further from the truth. Unlike the Simpsons episode ‘Homer at Bat’, where Mr Burns hires MLB players to win a softball game, the real-life application on the international level is quite different.

Though some players that represent Israel, the Netherlands, and other baseball developing countries may make the USA or respective country in which they were born’s starting line-up, it is more likely that these guys did not. This means that there is more balance than the current system but not a farce, like in the Simpsons example.

As of now, Israel has been eliminated. After going 3-0 in the first pool, they went 1-2 in the quarter-final second round (Japan 3-0, Netherlands 2-1, and Cuba 0-3), of which one game was lost against the Dutch team they had earlier beaten.

The Netherlands are still in the race and will be competing against Puerto Rico this week in the semi-finals.

However, it is still remarkable that Israel, a team that did not even qualify for the 2013 WBC, made it this far and created such a strong following so quickly.

But we can see a pattern with Israel and the Netherlands. The Orange and Black were the Cinderella story back in 2009 and now have a solid track record; they made it to the semi-finals last time around.

In comparison, look at the 2015 Cricket World Cup. It had some surprises and close calls, even in the quarter-final knockout round, but these were still with teams from countries with cricket cultures.

Then look at the Rugby World Cup, Rugby League World Cup, and FIFA World Cup. There is both exponentially less competition and presence by countries with weaker financial or cultural ties to the respective sport.

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Clear eligibility guidelines promote the ‘us versus them’ mentality that drives sport, whether international or club, but to what end does this promote or potentially hinder the sport?

Rugby sevens’ beginnings as a touring game and now becoming an Olympic sport is a different approach at making the oval-ball world accessible to more nations. However, though it presents a version of the game that more countries can participate in, it is at the cost of not being ‘rugby’ AKA 15s.

I happen to enjoy sevens as well, but it is simply in my personality to find what makes any sport interesting to followers and, as a result, I will watch anything from hurling to curling!

But for those interested at increasing their sport’s presence and competition globally, creating a modified version may not be a viable option.

The WBC’s approach is one of many methods creating growth in an organic, albeit fertilised, grassroots manner.