The revival of the World (formerly Canada) Cup of Hockey that I am currently writing about reminds me about another subject that I wrote a few articles about on another blog a few years ago, the World Baseball Classic. And since I recall it, it is appropriate to make a few comparisons between the state of international hockey and the state of international baseball.
Two obvious differences are cost and climate and baseball has the advantage in both. It is far cheaper and easier to learn to play baseball and become good in the sport than it is to develop a young hockey player. Children from poorer countries can learn to play baseball while to learn to play hockey properly means at least being able to afford a pair of skates and lots of protective gear. And while baseball can be played almost continually year round, to be played properly, hockey must wait for winter in the polar regions of Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia or build and maintain expensive indoor rinks. That makes it easier to get more recruits for baseball than hockey.
As result of greater participation, international baseball does not have a quality problem like international hockey. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, the top 7 teams are still the same; Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. After the “big 7″, the quality of play drops off noticeably. Baseball has no such problem with far more countries able to field quality teams. But there lies the main problem with the growth of international baseball, that retards its development – and it is all due to American mythology. Hockey has no such problem.
In the aftermath of the near defeat of Canada by the USSR in 1972, a revolution in thinking about international hockey occurred. It was now recognized by Canadians that Europeans and Americans were catching up in the quality of play and that the best players in the world no longer exclusively came from Canada. Shortly after that, the first Europeans started to penetrate the NHL which has led to the development of the league as fans know it today; a multi-national league with the vast majority of its players coming from the “big 7″ countries. Canada is usually the favorite, one step ahead of the other “big 7″, but it is no longer an upset if one of those other countries win major international tournaments. And the attitude of Canadians to these tournaments has changed too. Winning events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Women’s Championship, and the World Junior Championship are considered major achievements by Canadians.
But in contrast to Canada’s sensible revised thinking about international hockey, the United States clings to laughable, unrealistic myths about international baseball and its own domestic product. In contrast to international hockey tournaments which are treated with respect by North Americans, the World Baseball Classic is constantly belittled and treated with disrespect by Americans. This helps to hide an ignominious fact; the host country has never won a medal.
Instead American fans like to pretend that they “don’t send their best players” or some other unrealistic excuse or they simply ignore the results and the facts. But the repeated World Baseball Classic results prove that Americans are not the best players of baseball any more. No matter. Americans like to still claim that the true champions and the “real tough” competition lies within Major League Baseball.
In three of the four major professional sports that are played in the United States; baseball, football, and basketball, Americans like to proclaim that the winner is the “world champion” instead of just being the mere champion of the United States. Actually the only true international championship in any of these sports that ever occurred was when the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball participated in the “World” Series. The NHL used to call itself and occasionally still does use the term “world champions”, but now usually uses the more correct title of Stanley Cup Champions thanks to the developments in international hockey.
American chauvinism is hurting the development of international baseball. Their continued disrespect for the World Baseball Classic is simply boorish. Some American commentators like former MLB player and television commentator Tony Kubek used to dream of a true world championship between the MLB winner and the champion of the Japanese leagues, but the American attitude to international play makes such a dream impossible to realize.
And the myths and disrespect hide another brazen fact; American baseball fans are being cheated by their own myths and self-deception. The NHL with a few exceptions can truthfully say that the vast majority of the best players in the world play in its league. But the results of the World Baseball Classic show that a large percentage of the best baseball players – maybe even the majority – do not play in Major League Baseball. So American fans are paying top dollar for a product that may be far from being the best possible. And yet they continue to pour scorn on the World Baseball Classic and insist that the only true champion is the one who wins the “World” Series.
As the future second President of the United States, John Adams stated when he was defending the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” Despite all the advantages that international baseball has as opposed to international hockey, as long as Americans continue to cling to their myths, the prospects for developing hockey internationally may be much brighter than for baseball. The main problem with international hockey is that its top quality is limited to seven countries. But if this can be overcome, international hockey can look forward to bright future developments, while international baseball remains in the dark ages.