- "We Need to Get the Good Old USA on Board"The 2009 World Baseball Classic, Corporate Nationalism, and Constructions of "American" Identity
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is a jointly owned operation of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA).1 It is enmeshed at the intersection of baseball with masculinity, ethnicity, identity, culture and the global corporate economy.2 Scholars have investigated the WBC for its utility as part of MLB's global branding promotional strategy,3 and also analyzed the tournament for its cultural significance.4 This paper seeks to build off literature on the WBC through an exploration of the connections between MLB's promotion and advertising of the 2009 WBC, the US sporting press's coverage of the Classic, and constructions of US-American national identity.5
On March 23, 2009, Team Japan earned their second WBC championship in three years by defeating Team South Korea in a ten-inning contest held in Los Angeles, California. The following night then-host of National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) The Tonight Show Jay Leno joked, "Congratulations to Japan for winning the World Baseball Classic right here in Dodger Stadium. Yeah, they beat Korea 5–3, which is perfect: the Japanese playing the Koreans in a city full of Mexicans to determine who's best at America's pastime."6 On one hand, Leno appears to celebrate the WBC final as reflecting sport, culture, and Los Angeles's cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, however, he segments and categorizes "Americans" into disparate clusters. Notably, he constructs a paradoxical vision of the game as played by "not-Americans" in a city of "not-Americans" to determine who is "best" at something ostensibly and uniquely "American." While played for laughs, Leno's remark parallels a number of anxieties, tensions, and contradictions surrounding the media discourse of the WBC since its inception in 2006.7
One might identify within Leno's observations critical questions that remain largely unresolved during the early decades of the twenty-first century. Who, or what, counts as an "American"? How do immigrants, fluid transnational populations, and decentered multi-, trans-, and supra-national institutions [End Page 116] impact US cities, and how are those locations collectively identified with specific "racial" and ethnic groups? As a commercial venture, how does the WBC signify and magnify the meanings, management, and reconfiguration of the economy in its global capitalist state? Intertwined and inexorably linked with these questions are concerns about the declining status of baseball's self-proclaimed, romantic and symbolic importance in the United States.8
During the early 1900s, Albert Spalding and the Mills Commission provided baseball with the origins of a nostalgic past. Their findings asserted that a Union General by the name of Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Unsubstantiated, this apocryphal claim provided the fundamentally American founding myth they desired to cement the game within a fabled tradition that never truly existed.9 Throughout the twentieth century, baseball represented the supposedly defining American traits of courage, determination, persistence, individual sacrifice, team spirit and virility exemplified by the burgeoning democratic nation.10 Despite this specious creation story, its legend persists as powerful folklore that resonates in the meanings associated with baseball as the United States' national sport.
I argue that the WBC's cosmopolitan flair disturbs and disrupts notions of baseball as the timeless US national pastime. Further, given the triumphs of clubs from Japan, South Korea and Cuba—and the failures of Team USA—the tournament challenges long-standing claims (by fans, MLB, and sport media) of US supremacy in the global hierarchy of baseball. The Classic thus represents a convoluted and fascinating mixture of US baseball's mythology and patriotism and the MLB's construction and mobilization of that myth and narrative for profit maximization. Ultimately, the WBC engenders a rich and varied reception that dislodges the "Americanness" of baseball.
In US lore and pastoral tradition, baseball and MLB are embraced as cultural elements of the nation despite the game's political and economic roots since the earliest stages of its formation in amateur and professional leagues.11 Although fans and media pundits recognize that MLB is a business, they steadfastly ignore...