Leave it to Bud Selig to crash his own party. By all but the most cynical accounts, the World Baseball Classic has been a success, and, in no region has that been more true than the Caribbean. As Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic get ready to take their longstanding rivalry to the global stage, baseball should basking in the glow of the international spotlight. Instead, the sport seems more interested in using the event as a backdrop for cost containment.
While baseball nations have been battling it out for the WBC championship, the lords of the realm have been quietly trying to figure out a way to cultivate the talent on display in a more cost effective manner. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, sources inside the game have indicated the owners are willing to make several economic concessions in exchange for an international draft, which, undoubtedly, would have slotting and budgetary requirements similar to those recently imposed on amateur players in the United States. This isn't the first time baseball's powers-that-be have floated the idea of extending the draft abroad, but it is the most ironic.
Over the last 25 years, the baseball fortunes of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have taken divergent paths. Many believe the reason for this is the amateur draft, and the impact can been seen by the names on each team's roster at the WBC. Whereas Puerto Rico is comprised mostly of local players and journeyman, the Dominican squad is a veritable Major League All Star team. However, if the tournament had been held three decades ago, the opposite might have been true. What caused the about-face? In 1989, Puerto Rican players were annexed by the Rule IV draft, and since then, the number of major leaguers from the island have declined precipitously. That's something the major leaguers on the Dominican roster might want to keep in mind when they look across the field tonight. There, but for the grace of their own convictions, goes the future of baseball in their country.
It doesn't make sense for teams to invest in Puerto Rican baseball. After all, why spend millions of dollars building academies and promoting the game, when the players you develop can be drafted by one of your competitors? That's why major league teams and even independent investors have increasingly poured their time and money into mining talent in unregulated places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. When you think about all the star players that hail from these two countries alone, it's hard to imagine Major League Baseball enjoying the same amount of domestic and international popularity without maintaining its access to a deep, global talent pool. So, why exactly is the sport trying to kill its golden goose?
Much to the chagrin of baseball owners, the amount of foreign born talent isn't the only thing that has grown exponentially. The signing bonuses paid to these players have as well. In the last CBA, spending restraints were placed on foreign signings, but one element wasn't removed from the process: competitive bidding. As long as teams are free to compete with each other for talent, the costs will continue to rise. That's what makes an international draft so appealing. By obtaining exclusive rights to players, teams no longer have to worry about paying them what the market says they are worth. For many draft picks, it's "take it or leave it", and, considering the relative poverty in several countries that serve as a pipeline to the majors, it stands to reason that international amateurs will be particularly vulnerable when confronted by this negotiating tactic.
It seems foolish that baseball would simultaneously attempt to grow global interest in the game, while limiting its own investment in international infrastructure. Or, does it? Maybe the WBC was intended to serve a dual role? Fermenting international interest in baseball is the obvious objective, and the one Bud Selig likes to promote? However, encouraging surrogates might be the more subtle driving force at play.
If major league baseball wanted to get out of the development business, it would need national programs to take over, and what better way to induce their participation than by creating an event that is a source of national pride? The complexity and expense of playing baseball has made organic global growth a challenge, but the lack of an international tournament, such as the World Cup or Olympic basketball, probably hasn't helped much either. If the WBC can encourage more countries to spend money on the sport, baseball can have its cake without paying for as many of the ingredients.
Luckily for amateur players in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, their fate is not subject to the whim of Bud Selig and MLB owners. Because any changes to their status must be negotiated with the MLBPA, their fellow countrymen, who make up a large percentage of the union, have the opportunity to stand up for their interests. All tournament long, players have talked about how much it means to represent their country's baseball heritage. Hopefully, they'll remember that pride before agreeing to negotiate away the privileges the made the honor possible.
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