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For Majors, Today Puerto Rico, Tomorrow The World…Baseball's International Stage

For Majors, Today Puerto Rico, Tomorrow The World


April 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, P.R., April 14 - Major League Baseball is studying the feasibility of playing games in Europe next year, possibly during the regular season, and organizing a World Cup for 2005 in which the sport's powers would compete.

"The interest in a World Cup is real," Tim Brosnan, baseball's executive vice president for business, said. "It's authentic. It's enthusiastic. All the parties share that enthusiasm. It's just a matter of cobbling together all the different issues. It's come from an 'if' proposal to a 'when' proposal."

Tony Bernazard, the special assistant to Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, called a World Cup "a wonderful idea, and we should make it happen."

Baseball - which is playing 22 Montreal Expos games here to raise the team's attendance and revenue - is aiming for a World Cup in two years but is still formulating the number of teams, the qualifying process and the frequency of games. Players and owners plan to meet next month to begin discussions on such a tournament.

One person familiar with the plans said the most likely participants would be the United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Canada, Cuba (depending on political relations with the United States), Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands.

The proposed dates for the tournament range from around spring training to after the World Series. Cutting into spring training would require moving up the start of camps. A World Cup in midseason would have players in peak condition, but Brosnan said it "would be a difficult proposition."

Conflict with the All-Star Game is the biggest issue, and although players are discussing a proposal to eventually pit United States players against international competition, it would be separate from any World Cup.

"The World Cup and All-Star Game are separate issues entirely," Brosnan said.

Baseball is interested in opening next season in Japan, and it has discussed the trip with the Yankees, who signed the slugging outfielder Hideki Matsui, a former Yomiuri Giants star.

Any regular-season games in Europe would be played before the All-Star Game. Exhibition games, precursors to a regular-season series, would occur during spring training.

Baseball officials were unhappy that they had to cancel the planned season-opening games between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo last month because of the war in Iraq.

Officials were concerned about the possibility of antiwar protests aimed at the teams. Baseball also took seriously talk of North Korea's firing a missile into the Sea of Japan as a protest, said a baseball official who spoke on condition of anonymity. At an exhibition game in Phoenix, Commissioner Bud Selig was approached by the wives of Athletics players who were afraid to go to Japan.

No European site has been chosen for regular-season games. Baseball is considering "big media centers" like Munich and "baseball-friendly countries" like the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, Brosnan said. Rome appears to be the most desirous, and baseball will soon study the feasibility of retrofitting Olympic Stadium, which is now used for soccer.

"All those places are possible," Brosnan said. "To tell you one front-runner would be lying to you because the world has changed so much in the last few months. Putting Rome as the target is a stretch. Italy as a target is not. Cities other than Rome are better equipped for baseball, but Rome has the exposure."

Baseball has not determined the teams or the number of games they would play, but believes it is a realistic idea. Selig, the baseball official said, "is very hopeful" that they can do it.

The union has not had formal discussions with the owners about European games, Bernazard said. Minor league teams from the Mets and the Boston Red Sox organizations played exhibition games in London in 1992, and in 1993 baseball discussed holding regular-season games there before the 1994 strike scratched those plans.

"If we want baseball to be a global sport, that's one market we need to open," Bernazard said of Europe. "When are we going to do it? We haven't had the meetings. But we need to look into that and look into a World Cup."

Baseball's International Stage

MLB Is Planning a World Cup, While IOC Wants Deeper Commitment

By Amy Shipley

May 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

As the International Olympic Committee waits for Major League Baseball to find a way to send its premier players to the Olympic Games, big league officials have distanced themselves from the Olympics in recent months as they chase a preferred -- and potentially much more lucrative -- international priority: a baseball world cup designed to mimic the internationalism of the Olympic Games but on Major League Baseball's terms.

The latest initiative of a league resistant to interrupting its season for the Summer Games is intended to stir international interest while eventually providing a new stream of revenue for Major League Baseball's and the players' union coffers. It would pit U.S. big leaguers such as Barry Bonds against Dominicans such as Sammy Sosa, Japanese such as Ichiro Suzuki and Puerto Ricans such as Juan Gonzalez in a tournament likely to take place during spring training and on U.S. soil, making it easy to compel the game's biggest stars to participate.

"It's beyond the formative stage and into the intent stage," said Robert DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer. "We clearly are interested in pursuing this and getting it on the field as soon as possible and perhaps as soon as 2005."

The issue is a rare one on which Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association seem to be in harmony.

"This provides a forum for competition that would be very appealing to the fans, very appealing to the players and, at the same time, would be wonderful as a method to expose baseball internationally," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the players' union.

What the proposed world cup might not do is satisfy the IOC, which threatened to cut baseball from the Olympic program last fall in part because of the absence of the world's best players, and which might take up the issue again after the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Impassioned lobbying by a number of Major League Baseball's highest-ranking officials and union leaders helped stave off the IOC's ax during a meeting in Mexico City last November.

"While I think their international initiative would be very welcome, I know it's still very important to see if there is a way to get the top names involved in the Olympics," said Bob Ctvrtlik, an IOC member from the United States. "The ball is in Major League Baseball's court."

International Baseball Federation President Aldo Notari said it would be a "disaster for the development of baseball in the world" if the game were booted from the Olympic program, but Major League Baseball and its players seem to have little incentive to push for a significant presence in the Games, given their fast-developing plans for a world cup. No one knows how much revenue the proposed venture could generate, but the financial picture is surely better than that for sending U.S. players to the Olympic Games, which costs Major League Baseball's clubs about $2 million, one baseball official said. That figure would increase substantially if the major league season were halted for the Olympics.

"Which one makes you more money?" said Andy Dolich, the Memphis Grizzlies' president of business operations, who served in a similar capacity for the Oakland Athletics for 14 years. "The one you promote or the one the Olympics promotes?"

Several networks have expressed interest in the world cup proposal, baseball officials say. DuPuy, however, said the primary objective of the planned tournament is not economic; rather, it would be to develop the game's international appeal with an Olympic-like showcase of stars, sport and nationalism. This would not be the first baseball world cup: such an event, put on by the international federation, has taken place sporadically since 1938. The last one was held -- without much acclaim -- in Taiwan in November 2001. A group of U.S. amateurs took part, finishing second to Cuba.

Any growth in the game's popularity that resulted from a Major League Baseball-boosted world cup could help the sport remain on the Olympic program -- even without big leaguers, baseball officials say. Baseball's struggling image globally was one of the complaints raised by the IOC as it considered cutting the sport.

"Certainly [the world soccer federation] would argue that their world cup only helps . . . make Olympic soccer more popular," said Tim Brosnan, executive vice president of business for Major League Baseball. "That is the argument we would advance to the Olympic governing bodies."

MLB and union officials say they already have made great strides overseas. Commissioner Bud Selig has made international promotion one of his top priorities since taking over the commissioner's post full time in 1998. The major league season has opened overseas in three of the last five years. The Montreal Expos will play 22 games in Puerto Rico this year. Big league clubs have played exhibition games in Japan and Mexico City. Games in Europe are being considered for next year.

Baseball made its first appearance in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona. Those Games, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, took place without professional players, but an agreement before the 2000 Sydney Games resulted in the limited participation of pros: for the United States, that meant minor leaguers who were members of major league teams' 40-man rosters.

In Sydney, the U.S. team won the gold medal.

DuPuy said major league officials continue to brainstorm about ways to get big leaguers in the Olympics, but the scheduling problems -- at the moment -- are so significant as to all but ensure that no major leaguers could play before the 2012 Summer Games, when the Olympics might be sent to New York or Toronto (the IOC votes in 2005). Even then, DuPuy said, baseball would be unlikely to suspend its season so hordes of major leaguers could participate; rather, officials might consider a partial solution, such as releasing a player or two per team.

"We would like very much to have the best players in the Olympics, but our schedule, our season and the expectations of our fans make that difficult at the present time," DuPuy said.

Some Olympic officials find that excuse hard to swallow given that the NHL has managed to interrupt its season to attend the last two Winter Games and the Japanese and Korean professional baseball leagues have pledged to shut down their seasons for the 2004 Athens Games. The way some see it, Major League Baseball not only has the luxury of a lengthy spring training for scheduling extra games, but it also has the option of adding doubleheaders. Olympic officials further point out that baseball extended its season in 2001, postponing games for a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Others have proposed that baseball skip its annual all-star game in Olympic years, thereby creating the need for fewer make-ups. Such a move, however, would deprive baseball of a major source of revenue.

"Realistically, trading the value of the all-star game for a part in the Olympics just isn't going to happen," one major league official said.

Scheduling extra games in the spring or fall is unrealistic given the cold-weather problems in certain cities, big league representatives say, but some Olympic officials are skeptical. Last fall in Mexico City, Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady declared that "Major League Baseball so far is part of the problem and not part of the solution."

Said U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz in a recent phone interview, "We in the Olympic world believe commitments have been made . . . to address the fact that the Olympic Games is designed to have the very best athletes from each sport."

Some officials question whether Major League Baseball's apparent reluctance is tied to the IOC's hard-core drug-testing program, to which all Olympians are subject. Major League Baseball instituted its first drug-testing program this year, and it is widely considered lax compared with the Olympic movement's comprehensive policy.

"I know the people [running baseball] are plenty sharp," Ctvrtlik said. "Something is holding them back . . . whether it's the economics or the drug issue, I don't know. The only thing I know is they made some promises [last fall] that they would make some significant strides from the international perspective."

MLB officials say drug-testing has nothing to do with big leaguers' participation in the Games. They point out that every USA Baseball and minor league player who has competed in Olympic or world championship events has been subject to Olympic tests and that no problems have resulted.

Big league officials privately stew at what one official described as the "arrogance" of the IOC. Some baseball officials claim it is the IOC -- not Major League Baseball -- that is money-obsessed. One speculated that the IOC is less interested in having MLB players in the Olympics than in eliminating the television competition the big league season creates for the Summer Games.

They also take issue with the Olympic eight-team tournament, which for the 2004 Summer Games will include three European teams -- including the host country, Greece. MLB officials say that mix doesn't represent the most stellar nations in international baseball.

"We believe that's not in the best interest of the Olympic competition," Major League Baseball Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Sandy Alderson said. "It doesn't make sense to have three of the eight from Europe."

MLB officials are further irritated that the United States, despite being the defending champion, is nonetheless forced to qualify for next year's tournament.

Still, efforts continue to bring big leaguers into the Olympics, even as Major League Baseball puts the finishing touches on its world cup plans. Notari said he believes the Olympic tournament can be shrunk from 11 to 12 days to a mere five or six, thereby shortening the time MLB would need to shut down its season.

"In my opinion, in a tournament this short, it is possible to go to the Olympic Games also with the best players," he said.

MLB officials aren't so sure.

"If you consider the lead time needed to put a team together, traveling to a location and traveling back, a five-day tournament quickly becomes a 10- or 12-day proposition," Alderson said.

And there are, after all, other options available to Major League Baseball.

"The relevant question about a baseball world cup," Brosnan said, "is not if, but when."

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