Watered-down ‘Baseball5’ won’t do much to broaden baseball’s appeal

A ball sits in a glove during a spring training baseball workout. (David Goldman/AP)

In this era of fake news, internet hoaxes and general chicanery, it’s probably a wise idea to start this piece with the following disclaimer: Baseball5, a “street/urban” version of the game unveiled Thursday by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, is actually a real thing.

We checked to make sure, and good thing the release came out March 1, rather than April 1, when everyone would have been like, “Nice try, dudes, but you’re not getting me with that April Fools’ junk.”

Far from, it turns out, as the global authority for baseball and softball recognized by the International Olympic Committee is indeed launching a five-on-five discipline that features no pitchers, hitting a rubber ball by hand, bases 42.65 feet apart and five-inning contests.

Baseball5 will help “drive worldwide fan and participation numbers to our target of one billion over the next decade,” WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari said in the release.

There’s more.

“Baseball5 will become a key component in our Olympic and growth strategies by further introducing and popularizing the game among young people and mass audiences across the world – in Europe, where the Paris 2024 Games will be staged, and wherever the Games may be held in the future,” said Fraccari. “I also envision a future where five-on-five baseball/softball can itself grow into an Olympic event.”

For fans in established baseball/softball markets, there’s a whole lot to process there.

At its core, any attempt to make baseball and softball more accessible is healthy for the sports, and Baseball5 didn’t just magically appear out of thin air.

The WBSC has been piloting this program for months now, aiming to take the sport to places where equipment and infrastructure for it is non-existent. Given the smaller dimensions for bases, it’s easier to find places to play the game, and hitting a rubber ball with a bare hand makes equipment unnecessary and therefore minimizes the cost.

That accessibility makes Baseball5 a potential entry point into the sport for people who might otherwise never get engaged with the game.

On the flip side, it seems like a long, difficult leap for those kids to eventually transition to real baseball, especially while, as Fraccari himself says, “trends and behaviours shift in a growing digital world.”

In that vein, the WBSC is, in a sense, looking for ways to adapt the game the way Major League Baseball did in recently announcing a series of changes aimed at picking up the place of play.

But while commissioner Rob Manfred sought to trim off some rough from the edges of a great sport, Baseball5 is more a badly mutated clone of the sport. Its place in established baseball countries is debatable and it’s hard to imagine MLB ever having an interest in supporting such a watered-down version of the game.

The other eyebrow-raiser is Fraccari suggesting that Baseball5 could one day find its way onto the Olympic program, and it’s noteworthy that he said it “closely aligns with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach’s innovative Olympic Agenda 2020 vision.”

Baseball is back on the Olympic program for the 2020 Games in Tokyo after getting bounced for London 2012 and Rio 2016, but with only six teams rather than the previous eight and with no promises for Paris 2024 and beyond.

Given France’s limited connection to baseball and the IOC’s Olympic Agenda plan and the New Norms document governing future bid processes, Fraccari may be reading the tea leaves and understanding that non-baseball/softball countries aren’t likely to be asked to build facilities that will go unused post-Games.

Prior to the beginning of the Pyeongchang Olympics last month, Bach trumpeted the New Norms as a way to bring down costs for future bidders.

Creating a scaled-down version of the sports with the potential for a wider appeal because of its accessibility is a way to score points with the IOC and, perhaps, score a more permanent place on the Olympic program.

That’s fine, but maybe it would be better to ensure the baseball tournament at the 2020 Olympics offers enough entertainment value to convince future bid cities that it’s worth a place on the program.

So far, things remain unsettled with the qualification process for Tokyo still not finalized and Baseball5 possibly making MLB more reluctant to allow even the use of non-40-man roster players participate in the Olympics.

Ultimately, the WBSC won’t be able to lobby for both baseball/softball and Baseball5 at the Olympics and Baseball5 offers it a potential lifeline if baseball/softball again fall off the program.

For now, it’s a concept and a set of rules aimed at expanding the sport’s reach, but one likely to ultimately push WBSC and MLB further apart in pursuing the same goal.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.