The future of baseball is international

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Baseball might have been invented in America, but it is no longer an American game. If nothing else, the World Baseball Classic should have informed you of this: the semifinals of this year’s iteration of the WBC featured Japan, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, and eventual winner — but only for the first time — the United States.

That delay in Team USA taking the whole tournament is thanks to baseball being an international game far before now, but the future is only going to trend even more in that direction. Baseball belongs to the world now, and at some point, MLB is going to embrace it even more than they already have.

Think of the makeup of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Canada, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, and Venezuela joined the United States in the fourth WBC in the tournament’s history. That’s a globe-spanning list of countries, and it’s not even every nation that was involved in the tourney: Colombia and Israel made it into the main World Baseball Classic tournament for the first time by winning the qualifying tournament from a year ago.

That qualifying tournament had its own set of 16 teams that included New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Germany, Nicaragua, France, Panama, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain, and Pakistan. The World Series might not adhere to its own billing, but the WBC hasn’t had any such issue.

It comes through in the way the games are played, too. We’re used to a very specific version and vision of baseball in the United States, as well as American-born players just dying to enforce the way the game has always been played with a litany of unwritten rules. Carlos Correa, star shortstop of the Astros and Puerto Rico’s WBC team this year, has strong thoughts on the issue that he shared during the tournament:

We’ve romanticized the game's past so much that we’ve forgotten about its future. Since its beginnings, baseball has been guided by an invisible hand. A set of unwritten rules that all players are expected to adhere to. These unwritten rules are responsible for trying to kill our fans’ favorable perception of the game that we love. They strangle the passion and creativity of some of our sports most exciting athletes, all for the fear of breaking those unwritten rules. We are so enamored by the idea of what we think the game should look like that we fail to see how it could be seen. The past has been glorified so much that we resist any change at all for fear that it will degrade traditions but in doing so we have stopped the game from progressing forward. We are surprised and offended when we hear someone say the game is boring or dying, but we don’t take action to fix it.

Columns sprung up throughout the WBC about the emotion and joy of both the fans and the players from teams other than USA’s. Luckily, we have players like Correa speaking out against the old way of doing things, where having fun or enjoying the skill you’re putting on display is likely to get a fastball whizzing by your head. That is changing, and will change even further, as more and more international players enter MLB and bring about that evolution from the inside.

On Opening Day in 2016, 27.5 percent of players on big-league rosters were born in a country besides the United States, and that total was spread out among a record 18 countries and territories. That was eight more players, one more percentage point, and one more country than the year before:

As it has each year since MLB began releasing this annual data in 1995, the Dominican Republic again leads the Major Leagues with 82 players born outside the United States. Venezuela ranks second with 63 players, and Cuba places third with 23 players, its highest total since Opening Day data has been tracked, eclipsing the 19 players in 2014. Rounding out the totals are Puerto Rico (17, its highest total since 20 in 2011); Mexico (12); Japan (8); South Korea (8, surpassing its previous high of five in 2003, 2005 and 2006); Canada (6); Panama (4); Colombia and Curaçao (3 each); Brazil and Taiwan (2 each); Aruba, Australia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua and the U.S. Virgin Islands (1 each).

It’s not just the chance of being a baseball player coming to America to play in Major League Baseball that is expanding the reach of the game, either. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has discussed his desire to expand baseball, and he’s mentioned locations for teams that are not in the United States as potential landing spots. The frontrunners on Manfred’s list for MLB expansion are Mexico City, Mexico, and a return to baseball in Montreal, expanding MLB’s Canadian influence once again.

Mexico City is the capital of Mexico, and the most populous city in North America. It would also only be the beginning of expansion into Mexico if MLB desired further growth: there are 30 teams in MLB, but the pool of baseball players to pull from is only growing larger — they could continue to add teams if they chose to, and given it’s been nearly 20 years since the last pair of new clubs, you could even say they are due.

With expansion into Mexican and Canadian markets that are likely far more fruitful than checking in on Portland and Las Vegas for roughly the hundredth time, MLB would begin to feel more like a North American league rather than just an American one.

And why stop there? MLB could someday experiment with games or teams in Europe, and while it would be a scheduling nightmare, so are coastal road trips for the east and west on this continent. If flying from Boston to London for something besides exhibition baseball isn’t a thing you or MLB ever sees happening, why not MLB expanding their business and forming a European equivalent of their league?

One of the incredible things about soccer is the sheer volume of the sport: there are leagues and leagues and seemingly always a game on to watch if you choose to. MLB deciding they need a European league to help grow the game on another continent would be bold, but sensible, especially given they have the tools in place, between and MLB Network, to broadcast the games in more places than just the European cities they are being played in.

Expanding into Europe, whether with MLB teams or a Euro-MLB league, is probably just the stuff of dreams and not actually in anyone’s business plans. It seems far more realistic than it used to, though, and maybe the growth of the World Baseball Classic is part of the reason for that. The Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Great Britain, and Italy are already either trying to get into the main WBC tournament or have already been there. MLB teams have scouts in many of these countries already, checking to see if a future big-league player resides there.

Even if MLB settles for just two new teams, one in Mexico City and one in Montreal, the international growth of the game will continue. More and more international players from more and more countries will join the rosters of MLB teams. Their influence will be felt not just in boxscores, but in clubhouses and on television and in the promotion of the game. MLB will continue to evolve, as it always has, and the game will be better for it.