Urban adaptation a glimpse into our baseball future?

Kingsley Collins

9 April 2019

 

At a time when baseball countries – including Australia – are directing their attentions towards the Premier 12 tournament and seeking to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, the world governing body has been ramping up its commitment to a drastically modified version of the sport.

 

Australian baseball aficionados might have noted recent reporting by World Baseball Softball Confederation on the phenomenon of Baseball5, “a new five-on-five, five-inning street version of the game of Baseball/Softball that can be played anywhere.”

 

According to WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari, Baseball5 is a “faster urban discipline that will help drive baseball and softball to new places not possible before” – including into the Olympic movement, which has shown a propensity in recent times to accommodate modified and more socially accessible athletic activities.

 

Currently focused on his duties as Baseball Australia General Manager leading into the Premier 12 and Olympics campaign, former Major Leaguer Glenn Williams shared his thoughts on Baseball5 and broader baseball development at home and overseas.        

 

“Baseball5 is definitely interesting,” Glenn Williams told Australian Baseball Alumni. “I think as it evolves and starts to get a little bit more traction it will start to find its place. It is difficult to know where that will be and also dependant on the nations where it is being introduced.”

 

“I think it may be a gateway to baseball for young people who are playing it,” he said.

 

For those unfamiliar with the Baseball5 concept, it is described by World Baseball Softball Confederation as a true “street discipline”, which can be self-regulated by teams operating in their own environment, within their own set of local rules.

 

It can be played on any surface, indoors and outdoors – set as a designated square infield of particular size, with thirteen metres between bases - under overall rules and conventions outlined by WBSC.

 

A rubber ball is the only equipment needed to play the game, which is scheduled over five innings, with five players representing both genders on either side, fielding as first base, second base, third base, shortstop, midfielder.

 

The ball has to be hit with either the palm or fist. Points (or runs) are scored when a player completes a full circle around the bases. There is a Tie-Breaker Rule and a Run Ahead Rule (IE what we currently call Mercy Rule).

 

The Baseball5 concept has been around for many years, and it represents a genuine wish to make the skills and the sport of baseball more accessible to young people – especially in underdeveloped countries or those in which baseball facilities are limited. It is truly a game for all demographics, regardless of socio-economic status and one that may be especially attractive to underserved or disadvantaged communities.

 

Baseball5 was officially launched in Havana during 2017 and it has already built a strong foothold in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe – with WBSC President Ricardo Fraccari committing his organisation to growing the sport to over one billion participants within a decade.

 

If this lofty goal even approaches fruition, there would be a compelling case for Baseball5 itself to be admitted as an Olympic Games sport.

 

 “We are launching this new version (of baseball) to attract young people – the millennials – the new generation,” said WBSC Global Ambassador for Baseball Antonio Castro at the launch in Havana, Cuba. “As the world governing body, we have to plan new things for new times in order to make young people want to practise this sport.”

 

“Time will tell on what the impact Baseball5 has on baseball across the world,” Glenn Williams said.  “If it makes baseball more accessible to more people – and if it helps develop in them the skills that they can carry over into the sport, then it can only be a good thing in my opinion.”

 

“I know that Baseball Australia and the WBSC are discussing ways it can be implemented in Australia. Hopefully it is something that draws more people to baseball in this country.”

Modifications to established, “traditional” sports are of course becoming increasingly more common in Australia and across the sporting world. Sevens rugby, “small-side” soccer, Twenty-twenty cricket and AFLX are just a few of the many variations that have been introduced in Australia. For the 2020 Olympics there will even be a 3 on 3 variant of basketball medals competition (four players per side).

 

Skateboarding and Sport Climbing will be contested at the Tokyo Olympics, while Breakdancing has been introduced for Paris 2024 – indicative of a preparedness by the International Olympic Committee and competing nations to facilitate departure from our more traditional team and individual athletic sporting endeavours.

 

In its ultimately fruitless efforts to keep baseball in the Olympics for Paris 2024, World Baseball and Softball Confederation argued vehemently that baseball deserved its place – especially with almost certain inclusion for Los Angeles in 2028. Desperate to get baseball over the line for 2024, WBSC proposed a series of modifications to the sport – including speed-up rules and seven innings games at world-class tournaments. To no avail.

 

There is no doubt that World Baseball and Softball Confederation is heavily committed to making its sports more accessible and more affordable – especially in less privileged countries.

 

“Growth of baseball is something that everyone involved wants to see,” Glenn Williams said. “It’s a hugely popular sport around the world and I think there is a concerted effort from every established baseball nation to continue to develop their sports in their respective countries.”

 

“There’s a big push to grow the game around the world and the Olympics Games can be a centrepiece for that. The lure of an Olympics can really motivate people, regardless of the sport. I have seen countries all over the world looking to grow baseball in their countries on the back of this.”

 

“When you add in the Baseball5 concept, the ability to reach people through social media and a huge fifteen months leading into Tokyo, I think you will continue to see the WBSC use everything at its disposal to try and grow the sport around the world,” he said.

 

“The aim for them is to have the Premier12 the largest sporting event of 2019. Based on the 2015 social media numbers they have a chance to do that.”

 

Regardless of what happens with Baseball5 or any other project aimed at increasing participation in and around the sport, the future of Australian elite-level baseball is very much dependent on what happens over coming months and on whether the sport is able to garner the funding that will enable it to consistently compete at the highest levels on a world stage.

 

Qualifying for Tokyo 2020 will be a tough ask, an assignment that will have direct bearing on our capacity to argue for increased funding from Australian Institute of Sport, whose focus is directed largely towards established Olympic sports, medals prospects, Commonwealth Games and achieving World Champion status in any other sporting discipline.

 

“The positive is that we know exactly what’s in front of us,” Glenn Williams said, in acknowledging that is not an easy task for anyone – other than the host nation – in qualifying for a six-team event.

 

“But it is tournament baseball after all, and we will attack whoever is in front of us on a daily basis.”

 

“Our preparations for Premier 12 are going well,” he said. “We are in a unique situation where we don’t have daily access to our guys and not everyone in the squad is playing professionally. The staff and the players have somewhat embraced this, though, and they are determined to do everything they can to be prepared for the tournament as best we can.”

 

Both Glenn Williams and Australian Team Manager David Nilsson were pleased with the national squad camp held earlier this year – an occasion that brought the group together, made it “feel real” and provide an opportunity for staff to work through plans for the months leading into the Premier 12.

 

“With players located all over the world, it’s not the easiest job to get everyone available,” Williams said. “One of the main reasons for the camp was to get face to face with the majority of the squad and start those conversations. The players are really committed and now it’s a matter of working with their clubs to see if they can be available. It’s still pretty early to tell and injuries and workloads often affect who is and isn’t available.”

 

“David and his staff will be looking at naming a final squad about a month out from our Premier12 camp. It is obviously a challenging task to narrow the group down but work continues to happen behind the scenes.”

 

Pressed on the implications for Australian baseball on qualifying or not qualifying for the 2020 Olympics, Glenn Williams remains positive without looking ahead too far.

 

 “It’s still a little early to tell about what the impact of qualifying or not qualifying for the Olympics will be for the sport in this country,” he said. “The immediate impact to the team leading into Tokyo will be significant - especially if we can qualify through Premier 12.”

 

“Longer-term is a little more difficult to anticipate right now. From a baseball community perspective, I am sure that there would be huge excitement to see our team compete in Tokyo and hopefully that will be something the sport can leverage.”

 

“From a funding perspective, that’s the unknown right now. With baseball not on the Paris schedule but very likely to be on the LA schedule, it’s a unique position to be in,” he said. “We can only manage what is within our control for the time being, and our focus is very much on qualifying through Premier 12.”

 

Since baseball “modifications” were in large part the point of my discussion with Glenn Williams, it seemed appropriate to broach the subject of controversial MLB-inspired experiments in the Atlantic League this professional season – including increased pitching distance, increased base sizes, banning the shift, manager visits, pitch-tracking technology and speed-up rules.

 

For baseball purists who may be concerned about radical initiatives such as Baseball5 and – more particularly – with altering fundamental conventions that have served the sport so well for so long, Glenn Williams had these reassuring words.

 

“I can see how people may be turned off from baseball based on the time taken in between pitches, mound visits and the general down time in the sport. I think there will be a continued push to ‘speed up the game’. Number of visits, time in between pitches and so on I think are inevitable to increase and eliminate as much down time as possible,” he said.

 

“Moving the bases and mound I think are a long way away, if ever adopted. I know a lot of this is being geared to get more balls in play and more action, but there are other factors that affect that. Most of that is being driven by the increase in hitters trying to hit home runs. All a trade-off, I guess. People want to see balls hit into the seats, but they get bored with strike outs.”

 

“I think technology will continue to evolve in the sport and be more widely adopted,” Glenn Williams said. “Tracking the strike zone is a really interesting one. I’d hate to see the human element removed from the game and overall I think the MLB umpires are really good at what they do. They all have different interpretations of the zone and may have some bad calls here and there, but the technology proves that the MLB umpires are pretty good at what they do. “

 

“Though I don’t think much too radical will come out of the experimental stuff, the game will still continue to evolve in its own good time. If that evolution includes the growth of Baseball5 and other projects that attract more people to the sport, then I say bring it on.”

 

 

Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Glenn Williams for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We look forward to reporting on positive developments leading into the Premier 12 tournament and beyond, while we will be interested in how Baseball5 impacts – over time – on the Australian sporting landscape.

 

LINKS:

 

WORLD BASEBALL SOFTBALL CONFEDERATION

BASEBALL5 NEWS

BASEBALL5 RULES

 

Image:  WBSC