How Alex Liddi can help conquer Europe
But if you step back from team allegiance for a moment, and look at the overall health of the sport going forward, nobody currently on a 40-man roster can do as much to grow the game of baseball as Alex Liddi of the Seattle Mariners.
It's not because Liddi is a particularly exciting player -- he's kind of a run-of-the-mill four-corners type whose greatest asset is his bat, and whose bat isn't good enough to break into the starting lineup for even the Mariners. Nor is it because Liddi's personality is particularly exciting -- it may be, but I can't say I've ever read an interview with him or a profile about him, so I don't know.
Liddi is so important because he's the first major league baseball player ever to be born and raised in Italy, and if baseball is going to grow in Europe, it's going to be because of people like him.
On July 4, 1988, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, granted the 1994 World Cup to a country with no particular affinity for the game, one that had never won its continental championship, had no full-time professional league and hadn't qualified for a World Cup in 38 years.
But that World Cup in the United States was a rousing success, breaking almost every attendance record for the tournament, and it led to soccer growing into a major-league sport in the U.S. in the course of a generation. The U.S. reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009. Americans have played in almost every significant league in Europe, including the Europa League and Champions League tournaments, and have captained clubs in England and Germany. The U.S. is hardly a global soccer superpower, but it's a significant player, and American soccer is a model for how baseball might catch on in Europe.
One of the keys to growing baseball in Europe is showing Europeans playing at the highest level. Liddi doesn't have to win an MVP award in order to make an impact, particularly in the age of worldwide MLB.tv. He just has to catch enough eyes back home to make playing major league baseball seem like a viable option for a young Italian athlete.
Which makes finding the John Harkes and Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas of Italian and German and Dutch baseball all the more important.
If baseball is going to get a foothold in Europe, the obvious starting place is the Netherlands. The Dutch have not only sent a handful of players to the major leagues already (most notably Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven), plus their World Baseball Classic team advanced to the knockout round in 2009, beating the Dominican Republic along the way, and is considered a fringe contender for the 2013 edition of the tournament. But the biggest names on the Dutch team aren't actually European. Jonathan Schoop, Andrelton Simmons and Andruw Jones are all Curacaoan. Xander Bogaerts is Aruban. Even Blyleven, who was born in Zeist, was raised largely in California.
Even so, many of the Dutch players are actually from the Netherlands and play in the top Dutch league, the Honkbal Hoofdklasse. Now, that the Dutch call baseball "honkbal" really ought to be reason enough for you to root for the Netherlands in the WBC, but if the Dutch make a run in this year's WBC, it will strengthen the credibility of the sport in the Netherlands and grow interest, a few curious fans at a time, the way professional soccer grew here.
At the moment, if you want to play major league baseball, you have to go to either the United States (plus Toronto) or Japan. Dozens of other countries have professional leagues, but the level of competition and the financial organization of those leagues is more like what you might see in independent minor league baseball. Worse, before a few years ago, there was no real scouting mechanism in mainland Europe, so even if a player like Liddi had the ability to play in the majors, he might spend his entire career in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse or the IBL without ever really getting a chance to make the jump across the Atlantic.
The establishment of a credible Dutch (or Italian or pan-European) major league would allow a bigger platform for European players to showcase their skills, as well as another avenue for North American and Asian players to play professionally if their domestic options have run out. As we've seen not only in soccer, but in basketball and ice hockey as well, the more decentralized the structure of the professional game, the more movement of players, expertise and money we'll see across international borders.
It's not enough for Europeans to see baseball played at the highest level. Sure, a guy in Milan might enjoy his MLB.tv subscription, but will he go to the ballpark to see his local team, even assuming that there's a local ballpark and a local team to support? Will he sign his children up for Little League? Probably not. A foreign curiosity doesn't breed passionate fanhood. Professional soccer only took off in the United States when a distinctly American culture was created -- American players playing for American teams at a level that is at least within sight of "world class."
And that won’t happen to baseball in Europe until the Asian and American monopoly on the game's culture and resources is eased. That means Major League Baseball and its corporate partners investing in youth and professional leagues in Europe. That means finding and developing players like Liddi and the late Greg Halman, who came of age in European baseball, cultivating them into major league-quality players and using them like missionaries to promote the game in Europe. That means, probably, staging part of the WBC itself (not just the qualifying round) in Europe and sending a marquee national team -- Venezuela, the United States, the Dominican Republic -- to play the group stage in Amsterdam, for instance, to give the fans a glimpse of top-flight baseball in person.
These investments will take many years, many millions of dollars and, perhaps most importantly for an often-reactionary baseball brass, many instances of deviating from established practices and incurring a momentary inconvenience to reap a long-term benefit.
With that in mind, it's worth asking the question: Is a concerted investment in European baseball worth it for the current establishment? To that I'll say this: The first professional leagues started as an enterprise for white American men only. And every time it's reached out to expand its constituency -- to African-Americans, to Latin America, to the Far East -- it has been rewarded with tactical and cultural innovation, a broader fan base and a higher quality of play. Every move baseball has made to expand to new geographic areas has paid off tenfold. Why should this be any different?
But baseball’s global conquest has to start somewhere. It might as well start with Alex Liddi.
Michael Baumann writes at Crashburn Alley, the SweetSpot Network's Phillies affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter at @MJ_Baumann.
Seattle Mariners, World Baseball Classic, Alex Liddi