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July 6, 2015

Baseball - The American Sport with International Reach

July 6, 2015

Chances are that when all things "American" is the topic of conversation or discussion, heading the list would be the All-American sport of baseball. With a history originating before the American Civil War, the game has become interwoven into the nation's collective mindset, earning the unofficial title of "the national pastime."

Even before the sport became professional in the early 1870s, it had already become as much of a social event as an athletic activity, with both urban and rural communities regularly gathering for an afternoon of watching their local baseballers compete against teams from neighboring towns. Virtually all other activities came to a halt while these games were underway, and although the passage of time has naturally provided other activities for average Americans to occupy themselves with, the seasonal spring and summer time tradition of a family outing to the local ballpark for joined fellowship, community spirit (and of course, hot dogs) to watch a baseball game remains as strong as ever.

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The Grand Old Game's widespread influence and impact isn't limited solely to the United States however. As early as the 1870s, the game was introduced in Japan, quickly becoming extremely popular in the Asian nation. For over half a century, it evolved into hotly contested competitions among towns and villages, especially between university teams throughout the country. Japan formed their own professional baseball league (Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB) in the 1930s and since the 1960s (pitcher Masanori Murakami for the San Francisco Giants being the first in 1964) has produced several notable American major league players, with two of the more prominent Japanese-born players being former LA Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, a hitting machine who set the all-time major league record for base hits in a single season with 262 in 2004 while playing for the Seattle Mariners. In addition, Ichiro earned both American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in 2001, only the second player to achieve that almost unheard of accomplishment (Fred Lynn, Boston 1975).

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Even earlier, the small Caribbean island of Cuba became exposed to baseball, reportedly in the early 1860s when American sailors and Cuban students who'd studied in the U.S. were credited with helping to introduce the game to the island. The game's popularity was soon embraced even more rapidly than occurred in Japan, so much so that in 1868 Cuba's first team (the Habana Baseball Club) was formed, eventually leading to the creation of the professional Cuban League in 1878. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 effectively walled off the island from international competition for decades, but the game (championed by President Fidel Castro, a baseball player and devotee) continued to flourish within its borders. Only in the past decade or so has the rest of the world been able to witness Cuba's best ballplayers, of whom current outfielder Yasiel Puig of the LA Dodgers is probably the most well-known.

Cuba may have been the first Latin American nation to fully embrace baseball, but since the late 1950s, major league rosters have become loaded with Latino players from Central and South America. Baseball players hailing from the nations of Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela have starred in the major leagues, among them such Hall of Famers as Roberto Alomar, Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Martin Dihigo, Juan Marichal and Tony Perez. Other notable Latin-American baseballers include Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso, Sammy Sosa, Edgar Martinez and Omar Vizquel. Additionally, many of today's current superstars of Latin-American descent such as Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrelton Simmons, Jose Bautista, Pablo Sandoval, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran and Jose Altuve are certain to one day earn selection into the Hall of Fame, major league baseball's highest honor.

Latin America and Japan aren't the only "foreign" regions/nations to be impacted by, and contribute prominently to American baseball. The Asian nations of South Korea (major leaguers Chan Ho Park, Shin- Soo Choo) and Taiwan (Wei-Yen Chen) have flourishing national baseball programs that benefit from instruction and support from major league baseball's international outreach programs, and the annual Asian Cup (formerly known as the Konami Cup) tournament features perhaps the most popular international professional baseball championship series outside of the historic and All-American World Series. Elsewhere, the continent of Europe's baseball history hasn't equaled the contributions of their Asian and Latin counterparts in terms of accomplishment or numbers, but participation in such countries as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom is increasing and gaining in popularity. Canada, America's neighbor to the north, has not only made inroads into the American major leagues with notable players such as former National League MVP (in 2010) Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and current Atlanta Braves rising superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman (who holds dual American-Canadian citizenship) as among the most accomplished Canadian major leaguers, Canada has also served as host to two major league franchises; the Montreal Expos from 1969-2004, relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2004, and the Toronto Blue Jays (1977-present). The Toronto franchise has become one of MLB's most successful during their nearly four decades of existence, even winning back to back World Series championships in 1992-93, the only non-American professional baseball franchise to capture baseball's ultimate prize.

Although baseball is undeniably "the" All-American sport, the impact of this relatively simple game is felt in all four corners of the globe, and its influence continues to spread, making it truly an international import of considerable significance and success.

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