Baseball wins the World!

Nineteen days ago, when the inaugural World Baseball Classic began in Tokyo, no one knew what to expect. Right now, most nay-sayers had disappeared, some no doubt wondering how they could have been so wrong about an event.

“There was a time when people said there won’t be a next time,” said Gene Orza, chief operation officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “Now, it’s a given. There will be a tournament in 2009. And that’s a tribute to the tournament and how it has been conducted.”

It was noted that major-league baseball had only scant representation in the championship game, with two big-leaguers on Japan’s squad: outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) and reliever Akinori Otsuka (Texas Rangers). The hitters, in particular, complained that they weren’t ready to face top-flight pitching during what normally would be the middle of spring training for them.

“You know who ended up winning? Baseball did, sports did, sportsmanship did,” said Cuban manager Higinio Velez. “We have to do this more frequently; we have to show the quality of the game, the passion that is put into the game. We have to forget about the millions (of dollars), like the players did, forget about what they make and play with their hearts and hands like they did for this tournament, forgetting about their problems and just concentrating on the game. They played because of the challenge.”

Before the first pitch of the WBC finals between Cuba and Japan on Monday, executives from Major League Baseball and the players’ association declared it a resounding success and began what is sure to be a long post-tournament discussion about tweaking the format.

Commissioner Bud Selig said he believed the tournament exceeded expectations in terms of interest and intensity from players and fans. “I’m thrilled, I really am,” he said. “When you do something for the first time, it’s not going to be perfect. We’ll tinker with it,” he said. “But I think for the most part, everybody really got it right.”

For Cuba, even without Championship, is a bigger winner. Thanks to the diligent lobbying effort of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and players association head Don Fehr and the Puerto Rican Federation’s promise to bail out as a first- and second-round host if Cuba wasn’t included in the WBC, Cuba ultimately was allowed to participate.

Baseball, not politics, won out. Selig and Fehr deserve tremendous credit for their vision and commitment to expand baseball throughout the world. Even while losing to Japan in the finals on Monday, Cuba showed it definitely belongs among the world’s elite baseball teams.

Selig’s WBC had folks talking about baseball at a time when March Madness has the supreme hold on America’s attention. The ratings in America weren’t off the chart, but check out the ratings in Japan and Latin America.

Latinos showed up in droves in Puerto Rico and San Diego to support their Cuban brothers. Soccer still reigns throughout Latin America, but baseball is second in the region as a whole and No. 1 in places such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

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