In 2005, hockey fans around the globe tuned in to watch Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, and Jeff Carter—perennial superstars in the NHL for the better part of the last decade-plus—run rampant for Team Canada through the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championship stage, en route to a gold medal.
Currently, the highest level of international junior baseball takes place at the U-23 Baseball World Cup.
While the idea and setup of the U-23 Baseball World Cup are sound—a 12-team international tournament to crown the best young baseball team in the world—there’s a reason most baseball fans probably haven’t heard of it. The tournament lacks the participation of major nations and top prospects.
In the 2021 iteration of the tournament, the eventual gold medal-winning Venezuela side was led by Jesus Lujano, who was last seen on a top prospect board in 2017, when he was listed as an “other prospect of note” in the Brewers’ top 30. The tournament also lacked the participation of five of the top-12 ranked teams in the world, including the United States and Japan.
If MLB were to work with the World Baseball Softball Confederation—international baseball’s governing body—to ensure that both the top nations and talent would compete, the tournament could blossom, benefiting both entities and helping grow baseball’s popularity at large.
Currently, the quality of players at the U-23 Baseball World Cup is an obstacle to it reaching the levels of hockey’s world championships. Getting top prospects involved won’t just make for better baseball—the big names will draw fans to the games—but because it will help the competition’s reputation and make the event more marketable to fans at large.
If MLB could work out an agreement to allow its best young players to compete, it wouldn’t just help the popularity of the tournament itself, but also MLB’s future. With young football and basketball players regularly playing in nationally and internationally televised college games, most rookies are household names before they even debut. Think about the NBA’s Zion Williamson domination of SportsCenter while at Duke, or the NFL’s Lamar Jackson fascinating fans during his Heisman Trophy campaign for Louisville. For MLB, the Futures Game is one of the sole opportunities for fans to see their team’s top prospects before they debut—and even then, the league leaves it to fans to seek out the Futures Game rather than putting its future stars front and center on a major network.
If MLB and its affiliates were to make it easier, or even encourage, the best players in MiLB to play, the league could reap the rewards of U.S. fans who rooted for a team of Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr., and Spencer Torkelson before any of them had even debuted.
One of the major roadblocks to top-100 prospect participation in the event as it currently stands is scheduling. It’s an issue that’s plagued international baseball tournaments for years now. The World Baseball Classic has opted for an early March schedule that has seen All-Star-level talent participate and caused the tournament to grow.
An early March start probably wouldn’t work as well for a younger player pool, though, as most prospects age 18-23 would likely be either deep in the midst of a college season or battling for an MLB roster spot or promotion to Double- or Triple-A. The current late-September-into-early-October schedule has the advantage of taking place after minor league baseball has ended and firmly in the college offseason.
The downside of the current schedule is the conflict with the Arizona Fall League’s current October-to-November schedule, a fixture of most top prospects’ offseason schedule.
The best option would probably have to be a winter showcase of some kind, when affiliated ball won’t interfere with young players’ schedules and they don’t have to worry if competing for their country would harm their futures in the sport. There would be some obvious problems with players who chose to spend their winters training, resting, or in winter leagues, but a December or January start would give the tournament its best chance of success.
Clearly, just having the top players in attendance isn’t an automatic recipe for success. The College World Series and Perfect Game circuit are both examples of a premier collection of talent with only niche followings. But events like the World Baseball Classic and the IIHF’s World Junior Championships show that a combination of national pride and elite talent will make fans care.
Another important factor to creating a true “World Juniors of Baseball” has to guarantee the top nations participate year in and year out. Without the United States and Japan competing, the World Baseball Softball Confederation isn’t just without two of its best teams, but also missing out on two of the largest baseball markets in the world. It’s unlikely that casual baseball fans in the U.S. are going to tune into a baseball tournament with college-aged kids they’ve never heard of if the U.S. itself isn’t competing.
Some of the main ways of solving this tie back into earlier points. A better schedule and more competitive player pool would certainly help convince bigger baseball nations that the tournament was worth their while. But on a larger note, MLB and the World Baseball Softball Confederation must use their influence to make sure that USA Baseball fields a team every year—and a good one at that.
Imagine a world in which we got to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Juan Soto lead the Dominican Republic’s U-23 squad past the likes of a Ronald Acuna Jr.-led Venezuela and an Adley Rutschman- and Jarred Kelenic-led U.S. on their way to a World Junior Championship—all before any of them had even put on an MLB jersey.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has found itself embroiled in criticism in recent weeks over the handling of its two major junior tournaments—the men’s U-20 World Junior Championship and the World Women’s U-18 Championship—and rightfully so.
First, the IIHF announced in late December of 2021 that all events set to start in January of 2022 would be canceled due to the omicron variant of COVID-19. This decision meant that the men’s tournament, which was set to start just before the new year, would be played as scheduled, but the women’s tournament that was set for an early January start date would be canceled with no plan to reschedule.
Then, with COVID cases at the men’s tournament piling up, including a significant number of on-ice officials, the IIHF moved to cancel the men’s version of the tournament—but this time left the door open to postponement rather than a full cancellation. The decision showed even further sexism by the IIHF, choosing to allow for an option for the men’s tournament to be rescheduled while simultaneously shutting the door on any chance of a women’s tournament happening this year.
Despite the IIHF’s blatant sexism and disregard for the health of its athletes and officials, the World Junior’s tournaments are some of the most prestigious and popular hockey tournaments in the world. Because of this, MLB and the World Baseball Softball Confederation should work to create a tournament with similar prestige, while avoiding the pitfalls the IIHF has made in recent months and years.
Even with all these fixes, it’s not guaranteed to take off like a rocket. Building prestige is something that will take time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth at least trying to improve the current model. So, get on it baseball. Hockey hasn’t perfected it yet, but learn from the IIHF’s mistakes and make an inclusive, entertaining, competitive, World Juniors of Baseball. The fans will love it…someday.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)