By STEVE KRAH
One of the most prestigious baseball awards will be presented to a longtime Indiana resident this summer.
According to the SABR website, the “Henry Chadwick Award was established in November 2009 to honor baseball’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past.”
A former professor, he has taught at multiple places including Butler University, Ball State University and Purdue University. Wife Ronnie B. Wilbur, a leading researcher and authority on deaf sign languages, is a Purdue linguistics professor. The couple spends portions of each each in Europe.
At a recent gathering of the Oscar Charleston SABR chapter prior to an Indianapolis Indians game, Bjarkman shared his vast knowledge on the World Baseball Classic (he writes extensively about the subject in “Defectors”) and other diamond topics.
Bjarkman has been to all four WBC’s (2006, 2009, 2013, 2017) as part of the media contingent wherever Cuba was playing. He witnessed the finals in 2006 in San Diego, where Cuba was runner-up to Japan, and 2009 in Los Angeles, where Japan took gold by topping South Korea.
A fan of the old International Baseball Federation World Cup (which breathed its last because of financial reasons), Bjarkman was skeptical when Major League Baseball came along with plans for the WBC. MLB was attempting to take ownership of baseball on a global scale with an Olympic-style event.
“What the original IBAF World Cup did was foster interest in baseball in a lot of countries throughout the world
Sweden would go and lose three games but it would inspire young people in Sweden to try to be on the national team,” Bjarkman said. “You knew from the beginning MLB’s version was designed to showcase international players in the major leagues.
“It did not emphasize and foster international baseball. These guys may be playing for the Dominican now, but they’ll be playing at a ballpark near you soon in April.”
Bjarkman said MLB was hoping to gain financially in the same way FIFA has done with soccer’s World Cup. Of course, the scope could never be the same because not nearly as many countries play baseball and soccer.
IBAF trademarked the term Baseball World Cup in international courts so MLB went with World Baseball Classic.
“There’s a lot of things I love about MLB,” Bjarkman said. “It’s really not about globalizing and internationalizing the game as much as it is about creating international markets for major league products and Major League Baseball — the same way the NFL is doing by having its games in London and the NBA having games at locations outside the United States like China.”
When the WBC came along, Bjarkman enjoyed the event in-person.
“It was really a lot of fun,” Bjarkman said. “There was that element of seeing these players play for their own country.”
That sense of national pride differs from country to country. Bjarkman said players and fans outside the U.S. identify with their national flag. Here, fans tend to be a part of Red Sox Nation, Yankees Nation or wherever their team loyalties lie.
As Bjarkman sees it, the WBC was not marketed probably when the tournament began.
“The first couple tournaments they should have given tickets away,” Bjarkman said. First-round games in Miami in the first few years of the WBC and maybe 1,500 would be there for USA vs. Puerto Rico. “People see these games on TV and there’s nobody there, they say ‘this can’t be worth watching.’”
WBC eventually became a recognized brand and began getting a foothold, but it still has issues.
There’s the timing. Coming during spring training, many players (especially pitchers) are not a full-go yet and team owners don’t like having their expensive talent leaving camp for extended periods.
With the size of the field, Bjarkman there are now eight countries with legitimate national teams with others using mostly players with ethnic ties rather than natives.
Take Team Israel in 2017.
“It was a team full of American players with ethnic Jewish family backgrounds,” Bjarkman said. “This is not an Israeli team.
“This is what MLB has been stuck with by expanding this thing out. You’d probably want to have a six- or eight-team tournament. But that’s going to be a problem because how many games can you market on television?”
Bjarkman also pointed out that countries like the Dominican and Venezuela have much of their baseball talent drained by Major League Baseball.
Two countries who run baseball independent of MLB are Japan with its posting system and Cuba for political reasons.
What happens if Puerto Rico becomes a state, a realistic possibility in the near future?
Bjarkman ask that if there is a Puerto Rican team in the WBC after P.R. becomes a U.S. state, why can’t there be a Miami Cuban team?
Cuba is opposed to the idea.
“They are still trying to maintain their own national baseball league,” Bjarkman said. “There has been a tremendous loss of players (to defection).”
Team Cuba at the 2013 WBC had seven of eight everyday players go on to the play in the MLB. Bjarkman’s research shows that 200 Cuba-born players since 1871 have played in the majors as of Opening Day 2017. He classifies 66 of those as “defectors.” The first in the post-revolution period (1961 to the present) Barbaro Garbey, who debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. The next one is Rene Arocha, who first pitched in the bigs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993.
Discussion in Indianapolis also turned to the international tiebreaker rule used in the 2017 WBC and first adopted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The “Schiller Rule” allows that the team at bat began the 11th inning with runners on first and second base.
“It’s not baseball as we knew baseball, but tournament baseball isn’t either,” Bjarkman said. “In the context in which it’s used, it’s really exciting.”
The rule, which has been used during regular-season games in Cuba in the past, was adopted for expediency. Tournament directors are trying to avoid extra-long contests.
“How long is it going to be before we see this in Major League Baseball?,” Bjarkman said. “Why are we going to see it in Major League Baseball? Because of the commercial aspect. You don’t want games going past a certain time.
“They do all these things to try to shorten games. If you want to shorten games, don’t have so many commercials between innings.”
Other factors that lengthen games are the way pitchers are now. There are lefty and righty specialists and so many visits to the mound. It was once rare to have a pitching change before the seventh inning unless a pitcher was getting shelled in the early going.
“They’e trying to shorten games on one hand, but there are all these breaks for video reviews,” Bjarkman said.
Lafayette’s Peter Bjarkman — aka “Dr. Baseball” — will get the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award at the group’s national convention June 28-July 2 in New York.