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Pastime or Waste of Time: Narratives in the Media Surrounding the 2006 World Baseball Classic
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Pastime or Waste of Time
Narratives in the Media Surrounding the 2006 World Baseball Classic

Among most baseball fans in the United States, conversation about the World Baseball Classic (wbc) garners minimal interest, at best, and at worst sheer disgust. US fans are notorious for their love of discussing rather than playing the game, with an insatiable appetite for minutiae, esoteric statistics, and romantic lore.1 As an avid baseball fan and follower of Major League Baseball (mlb), I excitedly anticipated the wbc’s arrival in the spring of 2006. Surprisingly, few friends, family members, baseball pundits, or media personalities shared my enthusiasm. In fact, most explicitly dismissed the topic or expressed indifference toward an international competition that, for the first time, would include active major leaguers competing alongside other professionals and amateurs for a world title. The baseball World Cup and Olympic baseball, since 1938 and from 1992–2008 respectively, featured amateurs, minor leaguers, or retired professionals; but in 2006—via the wbc—a team and nation could truly claim its best had played against the world’s finest.2 I argue that the reluctance of US fans, mlb players, owners, executives, and the media to embrace the wbc suggests a resistance to acknowledging that the game of baseball is not exclusively or exceptionally American.

The concept of American exceptionalism in relation to baseball requires further explanation. American historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his controversial “frontier thesis” in 1893, suggesting that continuous westward expansion defined a unique, democratic, and individualistic American character.3 In clear tones of (class, gender, racial, and religious) exceptionalism, Turner’s thesis fueled notions of America as a nation burdened with spreading democracy and freedom to the world. Sport offered a suitable means for the Americanization of immigrants and was an effective tool for the exportation of dominant American ideologies and values.4 Baseball was initially the most appropriate cultural sport to serve these imperialistic and commercial aims.

In 1908, Albert G. Spalding and the Spalding Commission promoted the [End Page 52] powerfully symbolic (and long-lasting) myth that baseball emerged in Coo-perstown, New York, created by Abner Doubleday in 1839.5 In reality, historiographers of the early development of the “national pastime” provide evidence that the provenance of bat-and-ball games is a much more complex and nuanced evolutionary process that took place in multiple continents over the course of centuries.6 Despite the fable of baseball’s US origins, historian Steven Riess contextualizes the game’s popularity in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries within the significant social changes produced by the country’s rise as an international power through industrialization and urbanization. Baseball fit within a larger nationalistic and ideological framework, supplying certain myths and legends to reflect and sustain a belief in American individualism and self-reliance, or as David Block suggests, “rampant nationalist fervor invigorated the effort to wrap baseball’s origins in patriotic colors.”7

Riess claims that a baseball credo contributed to the progressive reform impulse of white Anglo-Saxon Americans who sought to allay concerns of a chaotic and disordered society.8 Baseball supposedly typified the best agrarian, democratic, educational, and socially integrative features of American culture. Although Riess demonstrates that the creed did not accurately reflect American culture, fans and the public believed in the myths to assuage feelings of loss for an idyllic past and anxieties about the future. Supposedly, every white American male, at least, had the opportunity to excel and demonstrate his skill and talent on the field. These historical patterns, linking baseball and American exceptionalism, survived and resonate in the early twenty-first-century US media narrative concerning international baseball.

Returning to the wbc, I recall nothing more than a curious awareness of the paradoxically named tournament in its first iteration. How could an incipient tournament be a “World Classic?” Baseball is neither widely popular nor played throughout most of the world, notably unsupported in Africa, Europe, and to some extent China (although quite popular in Taiwan). An analysis of five major newspapers and two national magazines in the United States from the May 10, 2005, announcement of the Classic until the...