This morning, as Major League Baseball gears up for the home stretch, European baseball is embroiled in a qualification tournament for the second tier nations across the continent. The tournament is split amongst several countries, with Ireland playing its section in Barcelona, Spain. The tournament is a qualifier for the ‘Pool A’ tournament where all the European big guns take part, including the likes of Italy and the Netherlands.
At this stage you may be saying to yourself, ‘’Wait, there’s baseball in Europe?’’ Well, there certainly is. In fact, it’s very popular. Since 1996 the Irish National Baseball Team has taken part in tournaments in England, Austria, Croatia, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and this year in Barcelona, Spain.
In previous tournaments, the teams all met at a single location, played out great games amongst hundreds of European baseball players and fans, with the two finalists being promoted to Pool A. This season, the tournament has been split into several sections, spread throughout Europe. For example, Ireland are playing in Spain, along with Finland, Hungary and Switzerland. The tournament has been spread amongst the cities Krymsk, Tel Aviv, Zagreb, Barcelona and Antwerp.
There are two major problems with this odd, complicated format. On a most basic level, it simply isn’t very fair. Secondly, this format saps the energy, colour and drama from the tournament.
On the first point, breaking the tournament up like this means the bigger seeds basically never have to play each other, and get a much easier path back up to the Pool A tournament. For example, Spain are no doubt having a great tournament, however they have all the elements in their favour. They are playing on home soil, in front of home fans, with a big squad of players that are close to home. Most importantly, they only have to win a handful of games against a very small number of opponents, and their mission is completed. Whatever way you want to look at it, European baseball is ensuring that the ‘bigger’, stronger teams in Pool B get every chance possible to get instantly promoted back to the action in Pool A.
This tournament format is not fair and even handed, and every major international sporting tournament should start from that point. The only logical and fair way to hold the tournament is to play at a single location, neutral if possible. Bring the teams together, and let them fight it out on a fair, balanced, level playing field for the right to be promoted to Pool A.
On the second point, splitting the tournament up like this completely drains the colour out of it. I have had the privilege of playing for Ireland in several European tournaments, and one of the most memorable and enjoyable aspects of those was getting to meet and play against so many diverse European Nations.
Here were the final standings of the 1998 tournament played in Austria. Check out the number of teams involved.
European Seniors Championship
"B" Pool Austria - 1998
1.Croatia - Promoted
2.Slovenia - Promoted
Even the compromise of two tournaments as in 2004 would be acceptable. At least there were still several teams participating in each ‘half’.
European Seniors Championship
"B" Pool 2004
Group "A" - Poland
1. Ukraine - Promoted
Group "B" - Germany
1. Germany - Promoted
Just looking at those final standings from tournaments of years passed you can see straight away the obvious lure of keeping the tournament together. As a player at those tournaments, it was a rich, rewarding experience to play baseball amongst so many diverse European nations. The tournaments were real events, with players from other countries meeting, socializing and rooting for (and against!) one another during the games.
One of the greatest games of baseball I have ever seen was in 1998 when the underdog Georgian team, wearing purple t-shirts as their uniforms and playing with a tiny, financially challenged squad, took on and beat the somewhat arrogant Austrian host team. The latter expected to brush the rag-tag Georgians aside. The under dogs were quite literally camping to save money. The game was very exciting, and was made all the more colourful by players from all the different teams watching the game, rooting loudly for the Georgians (no offence to the very hospitable hosts, everyone loves an underdog!). The massive bench-clearing brawl didn’t hurt the entertainment value either.
Those brilliant, vibrant moments are few and far between now however, as European baseball has successfully diluted the qualifier tournament to the point where underdogs basically have very little chance, and the status quo is inevitably maintained.
Perhaps that’s what they want?
It is a crying shame that European baseball is so transparently weighting the qualifier tournament in the favour of the bigger seeds. It is unfair, and plays against the spirit of competition. There is simply no way you can, with a straight face, tell me that it is easier to organise five separate tournaments instead of one played at a single location. That just isn’t logical.
European baseball needs to scrap this convoluted, transparent format, and get back to playing a proper, fair and, at the end of the day, more culturally rewarding and enjoyable, single tournament.
The 2011 European Baseball qualifiers - Barcelona
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