When Cuba lost to Japan 10-6 last week in the final game of the World Baseball Classic, U.S. fans were reminded once again that baseball is indeed a world classic.
Two years ago, the United States failed to qualify for the chance to defend its Olympic baseball title, losing to Mexico in the semifinals of the Western Hemisphere qualifying tournament.
Welcome to reality!
This time around, everyone used major league players – at least major leaguers who chose to represent their countries. The United States lost a number of multi-millionaire crybabies but still had the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and an all-star pitching staff. Many of the remaining 16 nations had no major leaguers, including Cuba. Japan had only one big leaguer – Ichiro Suzuki. The Americans were the heavy favorite. Guess which team eliminated them two weeks ago. Thatâ€™s right – Mexico.
The United States lost to Korea in the first game of the second round pool, then beat Japan on a disputed call and needed only to beat winless Mexico to move to the semifinals. It didnâ€™t happen. So much for millionaires.
Baseball fans and U.S. baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, no doubt, will blame the defectors for the loss. The reality is summed up in a single word – globalization.
Olâ€™ Clark can speak to the issue of globalization in baseball from a position up close and personal. For almost a dozen years, my job was to find and sign the best non-U.S. players in the world. My work place became the globe.
In 1992, the Atlanta Braves watched the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays work the international market and strike it rich. Olâ€™ Clark had 25 years of scouting experience in the Midwest and had dabbled in Canada, Central America and the Dutch Antilles.
I became the Bravesâ€™ first international director and went about the task of spending Ted Turnerâ€™s CNN bankroll. The Braves had a scouting and development program in the Dominican Republic, but almost none elsewhere. It had been a decade since any Dominican player had come through the system to the major leagues.
My job eventually carried me to 50 countries; I learned to grunt and point in a dozen languages. I read a lot about two role models.
Howie Haak had become a legendary scout in the 1950s after the color line was broken. Scouting for Pittsburgh, he worked Latin America, signing Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico, Manny Sanquillen from Panama and many others who found their way to the major leagues. Howie knew six words in Spanish: Tire duro, corre rapido, comida, cerveza – throw hard, run fast, dinner, beer. And he had a checkbook.
In earlier years, Papa Joe Cambria had worked Cuba, signing players for Clark Griffith and the Washington Senators. Jackie Robinson was allegedly the first black player in the U.S. major leagues in the 20th century. Some of Cambriaâ€™s players had more color than a deep sun tan. Who cared? They could play and worked cheap – a requisite for the old Senators.
Even 75 years ago, the globalization of baseball was under way. Ossie Virgil Sr. became the first Dominican to play in the majors half a century ago. Today, 20 percent of the major league rosters are Dominican.
If it werenâ€™t for work visa limitations, no more than 25 percent of major league rosters would be U.S.-born. The Olympic Games and the World Baseball Classic prove my point. Non-Americans fill 30 percent of major league rosters, and the number is growing each year.
Nowhere in labor is the U.S. worker better protected than in professional baseball. Marginal American players get a chance to fill rosters while internationals with more ability never make it to the United States or lose a chance to remain because of visa limitations.
Any noncitizen must have a work visa to play professional baseball in the United States. Immigration officials issue around 1,100 work visas to the major leagues, a small percentage of the 66,000 used primarily by the agriculture and construction industries. With 30 organizations sharing in the limited visa pool, a club can expect between 35 and 40 visas annually.
Most clubs will have as many as 100 international players under contract. They play in rookie leagues in the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico and Australia. Fewer than half will reach the United States.
Players in those rookie leagues have three years, by major league rule, to advance to the United States. At the end of three years, a player must either receive a visa or be released. International players can sign and play at 16. Thus, far too many still-maturing 18- and 19-year-olds are released and sent back to the cane fields because there is no place for them on the U.S. visa list.
There are some breaks. Canadians are not included in the visa count, but Mexicans are. So much for NAFTA. A player on the major league, 40-man roster is considered a special talent and is no longer replacing an American laborer, thus his visa is not counted among the 35 to 40.
In a free-trade market, if visas were not required, the work ethic and love of the game would allow the alien to move and would send a huge number of gringos home.
Being an international director able to wheel and deal without the restrictions of the baseball draft puts a guy at odds with his scouting peers in the United States. You wondered why U.S. players were signed with large bonuses when they would have been marginal at best in the Dominican or Venezuela or Korea or Mexico. In those places, kids play on bare fields with discarded equipment and mushy baseballs, with no formal leagues and usually no formal coaching. They develop skills far beyond Americansâ€™ because they have no cars, they walk or run everywhere, they throw a ball a thousand times for every dozen throws an American makes. Poverty doesnâ€™t affect them because they donâ€™t know theyâ€™re poor; they love the game. I love the international discipline and work ethic.
Iâ€™m happy I was a major role player in the globalization of baseball. Iâ€™m happy I was able to bring dozens of players from around the world to make Americans play harder. I just wish there had been more visas.
It makes a guy feel good to know he found 15-year-old Andruw Jones in Curacao and started him on a career path that led to the major league home-run title in 2005 and that a dozen other internationals made it to the show because he took a chance on them.
As I watched Japan and Cuba, I felt no remorse for the United States. I knew the Cuban coaching staff and pulled for the Cubans to win. They love the game and play for virtually nothing. I had seen Daisuke Matsuzaka as a 17-year-old in Osaka and called him the worldâ€™s best teenage pitcher. He had more female followers than Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. He chose to remain in Japan despite Americaâ€™s millions.
More power to those who choose the thrill of the grass over the greed of the green.