By Rohit Mundayur
New Delhi, July 3 (IANS) The popularity of cricket is a boon rather than a bane for the spread of baseball in India, according to Major League Baseball Senior Vice President, International Jim Small. “If the kid has grown up throwing the ball, it’s a very short way to going from cricket to baseball,” he said.
The MLB opened its sixth international office on Tuesday in New Delhi and kicked off the ‘MLB First Pitch’, a grassroots programme that the league has already put to use in China and Mexico. “We now know what we are good at. India is different from the rest of the world but we’ve been in China for 10 years and now we have seven players who have signed contracts with major league teams and we have MLB being shown five days a week on the number one television network there, we have 300 stores selling our products – all of that was 8 to 10 years ago,” he said.
“China is different from India of course but we know now that if we have a long term strategy and be patient, we can be successfull. The opportunity is that in China, nobody threw. There was no reference to a bat and ball sport. We have that here.”
India has its fair share of obscure sports. But baseball is different in the way that it does not have the ubiquity that sports like football, badminton or basketball enjoys in many parts of the country. Thinking of it as being similar to cricket would be a mistake too, as former cricketer Mohammed Kaif would tell you from his experience at the launch.
Kaif was the chief guest and took the ceremonial first pitch. The ball was a bigger soft ball than the regular ball used in baseball and yet the former international batsman, best known for his masterful 87 not out against England in 2002 and the scorer of 19 First Class centuries, needed several empty swings before connecting one.
So how does the MLB plan to overcome the obstacle of the sheer lack of knowledge of even the existence of the sport among large parts of the population? “A lot of it will be just about education. One of the great opportunities here is that 90 percent of Indians are on a connected device, and this is in a country of over a billion people. So connectivity here is unlike anything else in the world. So if we do what we do in a right way within a social media context, we can get that moving quickly,” he said.
Small also said that there is a precedence of a country familiar with cricket doing well in baseball. “We’ve seen this in Australia. We have over 40 players from Australia that have played in the major leagues. Cricket is a summer sport there and clubs in the country were worried that they were losing kids to Aussie rules football or rugby. So they started baseball teams to keep those kids in the clubs and that worked. A lot of those kids went on to play major leagues. That is an example of kids being transferred from cricket to baseball,” he said.
Baseball has something that cricket doesn’t — a spot in the Olympics. Tokyo 2020 will feature the sport for the first time since Beijing 2008. Big players involved in the MLB were unable to participate in the Olympics due to the multi-sport event coming in the middle of the league season and this issue could crop up again in 2020.
Small said that while the availability of the major leaguers is important for baseball to remain a permanent fixture in the Olympics, working things out with the MLB’s schedule is a tough obstacle to overcome.
“Baseball in the Olympics is very important. We have also initiated conversations for the baseball to go to the Olympics permanently. The challenge is the idea that MLB players have to be in the Olympics.
“If that is the price of it, then it will be difficult because that would require us shutting down our season for two-three weeks. We have players from all over the world so its not just a question sending a few American players,” he said.
Small also said that getting an Indian team playing baseball at the international stage is one of the goals that the MLB has while trying to make inroads in the country. “We have the World Baseball Classic, Pakistan has featured in the qualifiers, India have not. It will be difficult for the next edition in 2021 but by 2025, we want to see an Indian team there,” said Small.
(Rohit Mundayur can be contacted at [email protected])