With both the Beijing Olympic Tournament (perhaps the last-ever Olympic baseball venue) and the second edition of MLB’s World Baseball Classic (March 2009) looming on the horizon, IBAF organizers are reportedly considering a complete revamping of format for next year’s renewal of the World Cup baseball competitions. This tournament — the sport’s most historic and legitimate world wide championship — has been a fixture of the international sports scene since the early 1940s and has been dominated by Cuba over most of its half-century life span. Held every second year during the last couple of decades, the event drew more than normal attention last November when Team USA captured its first title since the mid-seventies (and its first ever in the IBAF-sanctioned version of the event) and in the process ended Cuba’s incredible run of nine straight titles stretching back to the 1984 event in Havana. During its near-quarter-century uninterrupted title skein, the Cubans won a total of 92 individual ballgames while dropping a mere two contests. (Readers wishing to review a capsule history of Cuba’s successes in past IBAF World Cup events are directed to my www.baseballdecuba.com recap found at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=419.) Over the long course of the Cuban success run the IBAF showcase tournament has undergone two major cosmetic overhauls. The August-September 1988 matches in Northern Italy (World Cup #30) welcomed a name change from the former designation as Amateur World Series. And the July-August 1998 matches (World Cup #33) a decade later in the same venues marked the important demarcation from purely amateur to at least partially professional play with the introduction of wooden bats and with MLB-affiliated pro athletes competing on most squads outside of Team Cuba.
With Team USA’s upset gold medal triumph over the favored Cubans in Taiwan last November, the 2009 World Cup matches were due to have at least one new look — for the first time in 25 years Cuba would not be the defending champion. But now the IBAF has proposed unveiling an entirely revamped event with far more than just a cosmetic face-lift. And, as with everything “baseball” these days, the motivations appear in large part to be driven by financial and marketing concerns. The September 2009 IBAF event had originally been targeted for Havana, but that plan went by the wayside once a new format aimed at attracting a larger world audience and potential television revenues came to the table. What now appears to be on the docket is a month-long multi-venue affair featuring several tiers of elimination rounds and looking very much like the highly successful MLB WBC event. As proposed, the 2009 World Cup will run from September 9-26 and will open in five European locations, with a preliminary round featuring 20 countries. Those opening elimination matches would be held at the following five sites: Barcelona (Spain), Paris (France), Regensburg (Germany), Prague (Czech Republic), Moscow (Russia) and Stockholm (Sweden). With only four teams eliminated in this opening play-down, the remaining 16 countries would then pass two a pair of 8-team second round matches held at multiple sites in Italy (Parma, Rimini and Bologna) and The Netherlands (Rotterdam and Haarlem). A final championship round of eight clubs would then be staged at month’s end in the Italian capital of Rome. Since few baseball fanatics can be expected to show up for games in diamond wastelands like Paris, Prague or Stockholm, organizers are clearly counting on drawing attention to the event through a European television package such as the one utilized with stadio.tv (France) for the recent 2007 Chinese Taipei-based World Cup. Gone will be the days when the individual follower of international baseball will be able to plan a trip to a single location to enjoy first-hand the game’s biggest international spectacle. And it was likely the proposed made-for-television format that left the Cuban Baseball Federation on the sidelines with its plans for hosting the September 2009 games.
One top Dutch baseball website (Marco Stoovelar’s excellent “Grand Slam Stats & News” at http://home.wxs.nl/~stoov/) is also reporting a second proposal being floated by the IBAF which seems directly connected with the 2009 World Cup plans. This would be the creation of a European Professional Baseball League aimed (as reported by Stoovelar) at: 1- increasing the level of continental baseball competition, 2 – increasing Europe-wide television coverage of local baseball, and 3 – increasing corporate sponsorship for the Europe-based version of the diamond sport. Of course there have been long-standing and moderately successful pro leagues in both The Netherlands (the crown jewel of European baseball) and Italy. The rumored plan would maintain the existing leagues but stage an eight-team (eight-country) short season either before (spring) or after (fall) Dutch and Italian League play. The timetable for this second plan appears to be as follows: finalization of long-range plans in 2008, location of corporate partners and setting up a league schedule in 2009, holding qualifying tournaments to select six countries (to join Italy and Holland) in 2010, and beginning competition (inaugurating the European League) in 2011.
Both the revamped 2009 European World Cup and the 2011 European League are clearly very much still in the working stages, and yet both seem to represent a firm commitment of the IBAF to move in a new direction in upgrading (or at least drastically altering) its showcase events in the face of increased competition from MLB and its WBC inroads into international baseball. Marco Stoovelar is reporting that further details for the September 2009 World Cup plans are likely to be revealed in a public forum before the end of the current month.