When Bud Selig first became commissioner, baseball's idea of globalization was "Get a Free Taco Night" on Cinco de Mayo.
But boy, has that changed. We've seen Opening Day in Tokyo and San Juan. We've seen the miracle of the World Baseball Classic unfold before our eyes. We've seen men from Cuba and Japan rewrite baseball history in all sorts of ways.
And that, says the commissioner, is "just the beginning." So as Major League Baseball welcomes Daisuke Matsuzaka, launches its first venture into China and contemplates the next World Baseball Classic, we asked Selig to share his vision for the increasingly powerful connection between MLB and the Far East.
When you look at the Far East, do you see the future of baseball?
Well, I see horizons that at this point are unlimited in their potential. You know of our relationship in Japan, which has really been tremendous. Korea, we have a good relationship. And China is a horizon that just takes your breath away.
Is there a possibility in your eyes that Asia is going to become the next Latin America?
Only time will tell. I'm not sure we'll really know during my commissionership. But it has the potential for success in a myriad of ways that I don't think any of us understand today.
Obviously, there are big differences -- culturally, economically and politically -- between baseball in Latin America and baseball in Asia. How will those differences impact the growth of baseball as we know it there?
Japan, of course, was far ahead of the curve. They've played baseball there for so long. You go back to the '20s, and people were playing baseball there. So that was a little different. In China's case, you're looking at 1.4 billion people. But we're going to have to spend a lot of time teaching the game. And as you teach the game, they'll learn all the nuances, not only of the sport but of our society. So it's going to be a little different from what we did in Japan, but nevertheless, really exciting. Look, it is the next great horizon. We've done a lot domestically. I'm very proud of that. We need to do more in Europe. There is a big push in Israel right now, which Dan Duquette is involved in, and others. And I feel very good about that. But I want to tell you, when I think of where this sport is in the next decade, it's international that can take us to that level.
We're seeing already the buzz over Matsuzaka. I'll ask you about him specifically in a minute. But is there any way to sum up the impact that Asian players have made in our game in North America?
I think it's been spectacular. I mean, you think of the last seven or eight years, and what's happened -- in Seattle with Ichiro [Suzuki], and now the Red Sox situation, and the Yankees with [Hideki] Matsui. But you know what? This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning of all that. And the impact already has been enormous. But you're just seeing the beginning.
You remember [Masanori] Murakami, the Giants' left-handed pitcher [in the mid-1960s]? Everybody thought that would be the beginning. Well, we weren't quite ready. But there's no question we're ready now. And I think the Red Sox experience, if he pitches as well as everybody thinks, is going to be really dramatic proof of what can really happen.
Do you think in some way he can make a different kind of impact than Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, or Matsui?
I do. There has been so much publicity that his chance of making a huge impact is just spectacular. There was a lot for Ichiro and a lot for Nomo and a lot for everybody that has come along. But do I believe that this potential is more? You bet I do.
You talk about the tip of the iceberg. But the one issue that Matsuzaka really dramatized was the posting fees. Is any work under way to change that system?
No, not right at the moment. We will continue to review that. We are sort of on interesting new ground.
Can you achieve the kind of growth you're looking for without resolving that question?
Well, that's an interesting question. I don't know. But to me, that's an internal problem. Whether that would impede our growth, I don't know. I'm always concerned with fairness. And that's what we really have to review here.
We've obviously seen that these stars in Asia aspire to come and play baseball over here. But what is MLB doing to establish our presence there?
Well, we're in a long discussion now about what to do in China. We're opening an office. But you know, the World Baseball Classic was so important, in so many ways. It was not only our first foray into doing those things. But you had a Chinese team over here, a South African team over here. I mean, it was really remarkable in so many ways. These are the type of things that we have to do. But we need to go to China. We need to find ways that will help us reach as many people as possible. And by opening an office, that's the first really important step.
Since you brought up China, do you think there's a future Yao Ming of baseball there? And what can and will MLB do to reach out find him?
That's why we're opening an office. That's why our people are going to be all over the country. That's why we need instructors. The Jim Lefebvres have been very, very helpful. And that's what we need to do. But we need to do more of that. We need to have a program in China that is very meaningful.
You also brought up the WBC. The Korea-Japan games in the World Baseball Classic were such powerful events. How do you think the World Baseball Classic changed the relationship between baseball in the United States and baseball in Asia?
Oh, it brought us closer. There's no question about it.
And how has it done that?
Well, just the fact that we started over there, and then they came over here. That was a foray from them to us and us to them that you couldn't have thought of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, five years ago. I've thought about it a lot since then. And you want to know something? I don't think we even knew at the time how significant that was. We need to do much more of that, but you had to start somewhere.
When you say we didn't understand the significance, what did we miss that has taken place since?
Well, just having China over here. The fact is, just these things we're doing now. Countries were coming here to play baseball that you couldn't have thought of. If I'd have told you 10 years ago that China would be over here with a national team, you'd have laughed. It doesn't matter whether they won or lost. I mean, that's important. Nobody understands that better than I do. But that isn't the important thing. The important thing is that they were here. And it will lead to much more. But that was the watershed moment and event.
As you know, 45 percent of all minor leaguers last year were born outside the United States. But how about the fan base? Is baseball's fan base as diversified as you would like to see?
We're doing what we need to do. But I think as more players come, we will diversify the fan base. There's no question. It's happened with Hispanic players. And I think our Hispanic fan base has grown and will continue to grow. And let's watch as the Red Sox tour the county. I think you'll be surprised. But maybe you won't.
Well, if there are demographics baseball is lacking in, how do you attract those demographics you think baseball is missing?
Well, we've talked about that in terms of the African-American population. After all, in the '40s and '50s, it was stunning. I've often told the story of Jackie Robinson's first game at Wrigley Field. And it was just fabulous to watch people celebrate Robinson's first trip to Chicago and everything it meant. And [since] then, we've had a decline [in the African-American fan base]. So you have to work at that. But I think as more players come from other countries, you'll see the fan base will go there. Remember, we've already made the largest foreign television deal in American sports history, in Japan. And again, that's just the beginning. Believe me, that's just the beginning.
When you look into your crystal ball and look at the future of baseball, and the impact of our relationship with the Far East, and their relationship with us, what's the most exciting thing that you see?
Well, I said the potential was unlimited. But hopefully, some day -- and it's impossible to put a time line on that -- we'll not only have a true World Series, but the interaction between Major League Baseball and Asia and Europe, as air travel gets more and more sophisticated, will be spectacular. I don't know what it will lead to during the season. But certainly, a true World Series is obviously a long-term goal.
You talk about growing the game -- and I think we've done a great job growing the game; my goodness, our revenues will be $5.5 billion this year, which is just stunning -- but I can't even imagine what this can grow to if we do our job properly all over the world.
I've had lots of calls from these people who are over in Israel, who are really beginning to have some success. And our guys have been in Rome and elsewhere. I'm telling you, this is the genesis of a worldwide explosion of baseball. But we're going to have to work at it, and work very hard -- everywhere.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.