Worldly Game: The Globalization of Baseball

Article excerpt

Sixty-one. Probably no other record in any professional sport is so easily recognizable as Roger Maris' record for most home runs in a single season.

The two men who shattered the record this season, although forever joined by "The Chase," come from distinctly different origins. Mark McGwire, the redheaded heir to Babe Ruth's crown, was raised in a quintessential middleclass family. While McGwire played Little League Baseball, Sammy Sosa was thousands of miles to the southeast shining shoes to help support his impoverished Dominican family.

As more and more international players establish themselves in professional baseball, this contrast will become increasingly common. Currently, approximately 20 percent of all major leaguers are foreign-born. By 2001, this number is expected to rise to 30 percent. By far, Latin America has been the major source for this influx of new talent. The tiny island nation of the Dominican Republic, with a population of only 7 million, contributes 89 majorleaguers to today's talent, more than from any single American state.

The results of this demographic trend are not necessarily positive or negative, but it is a trend with which both the baseball community and America as a whole must come to grips. In the United States baseball competes with football and basketball for fans, but the popularity of the sport in the Caribbean remains largely unchallenged. To a child from the Dominican Republic, where the per capita GDP is US$3,670, the millions which professional baseball players command seem to promise a far better life than does any career in his homeland. For professional ball clubs, baseball's international appeal provides some exciting opportunities. With recent rounds of expansion diluting the domestic talent pool, general managers are turning to Hispanic talent to replenish their ranks. Latin American players, additionally, provide baseball with a connection to the United States' Hispanic community, its fastest growing ethnic population and a group that will be its largest minority by 2030.

While Latin America is the most significant hotbed in this explosion of international talent, the Asia-Pacific rim is becoming increasingly important as well. The Japanese professional league has long been the best organized of the non-American leagues. Yet, it is only recently that its players have begun making a major impact in the majors, starting with Hideo Nomo's rise to prominence in 1995 as Rookie of the Year. Japan's western neighbor, Korea, has also begun to make inroads into the world of American baseball. In 1994, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Korean Chan Ho Park, the first major leaguer born on the divided peninsula. When Park started against the New York Mets, 15,000 Korean-Americans bought tickets for the game. Such a statistic is not lost on ownership; teams like the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves now each spend US$4 million on international scouting.

The game's demographic change, however, has also brought with it several troubling problems. Seven years ago, the Chicago White Sox signed seventeen-year-old Magglio Ordonez for US$3,500. A small sum for an American ballplayer, this was a fortune for a young man from the Caribbean. …