It's no accident that Major League Baseball chose San Diego to host the finals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that concludes here March 18-20.
The city and the San Diego Padres presented "an all-around good proposal" to Major League Baseball, not the least of which was the longtime international involvement of the team's owner, John Moores, and new Padres Chief Executive Officer Sandy Alderson, said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president and the head of its international business operations.
San Diego beat out at least four other cities vying for the event , Houston, Phoenix, Anaheim and Los Angeles, according to several baseball sources. Archey confirmed the number and the fact that Houston was in the mix.
Archey noted San Diego's warm weather, its diverse population, relatively new Petco Park and the ballpark's proximity to hotels, and the fact that the city has a good track record in hosting major sporting events.
But at the top of the list was the Padres' commitment to expanding the sport beyond the national borders. After Moores purchased the team in 1994, the team launched an aggressive marketing and outreach campaign to fans living in Baja California, including opening a ticket office in Tijuana and setting up a bus transportation system to bring the Mexican fans to Qualcomm Stadium , then the Padres' home.
The Padres also played in the first regular season baseball games outside the United States and Canada in baseball history in August 1996 when the team faced the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. The Padres also opened their 1999 season in Monterrey against the Colorado Rockies.
Last year, Moores and Alderson traveled to Beijing as part of an outreach program by Major League Baseball to expand the sport in China.
While those events were steppingstones, the World Baseball Classic that began first-round play March 3 in four cities is taking the sport to a far greater stage.
"The primary purpose for this was that we wanted to create a platform to build the game globally and we're just into the first round, and I think we're doing it in a big way," Archey said last week.
Based on the turnout in the four venues, and TV ratings garnered for certain games, the final three games, broadcast over ESPN, are expected to rack up pretty fair ratings, even if the games do coincide with the first round of the men's NCAA basketball tournament.
Except for a small number of tickets released early this month, the two semifinal and championship games have been sold out for weeks.
Reflecting the international flavor of the event, the Padres said tickets have been purchased by fans in 48 states and 14 countries. About a quarter were purchased by Padres season ticket holders, the team said.
Notwithstanding the cloud of the Barry Bonds' steroid story over baseball, the early WBC games have exceeded all that MLB was hoping for when the games were announced last year.
"I think this is going to be bigger than the All-Star Game," said Barry Bloom, a reporter for MLB.com who was covering the games in Phoenix last week.
Although early reports on the event centered on the players who weren't participating, the games have been marked by intense international competition normally reserved for the Olympic Games.
"If you put on a uniform for a game when there's something on the line, as there obviously is here, players' competitive juices get flowing," Bloom said. "These are guys that want to win in everything they do. And when you add that you're playing for your country, they're really locked into it."
Bloom, a former longtime San Diego sportswriter, said Major League Baseball has finally realized that it had to grow its fan base by expanding its market beyond the national boundaries.
In this respect, MLB has been woefully behind the outreach and marketing programs of the other major sports, including professional basketball, football and hockey, he said.
"They finally realized they reached a glass ceiling in the United States and to grow the sport they had to go outside the United States."
Reports from the early games demonstrate the games have caught on with fans. The broadcasts featured sold-out ballparks, rabid fans cheering and waving their country's flags and a competitive intensity on the part of the best players in the sport.
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere here last night," said Archey, speaking from Orlando, Fla., where the night before players from the Dominican Republic defeated Venezuela 11-5.
"From the start, and even during batting practice, there was an excitement in the air. When the game was over, the entire Dominican team, including Albert Pujols and David Ortiz, were running out on the field like they just won the World Series."
A World Series
In a way, the WBC is the first true "world series," an invitational tournament among 16 nations where baseball is played. The plan is to hold the tourney every four years, just like the World Cup in soccer, but because the first one was supposed to be held last year, the next WBC is scheduled for 2009, Archey said.
While baseball is wildly popular in several of the participating countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Japan, South Korea and Mexico, the first WBC includes teams from lands where baseball is virtually unknown, such as China and its neighbor Taipei, Australia, South Africa and Holland.
The other nations in the WBC are Canada, Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, Italy and Venezuela, and the host nation, the United States.
As of March 9, the favorites were all still alive, although the U.S. team, led by some of the game's biggest stars, was in danger of being eliminated.
No matter who is contending by the time the semifinals begin, the games are certain to generate lots of extra dollars for the city in the form of hotel room taxes, and sales taxes emanating from restaurants.
But the big payoff will likely come from future tourism by those who watch the games on television.
"We're glad to be hosting the event because it's going to showcase the city as a visitor destination to international community," said Dennis Gibson, the city's ballpark administrator. "It's going to produce new, fresh revenue in the form of TOT (transient occupancy taxes) at hotels where they normally wouldn't get at this time of year."
Depending on what teams get into the final games, the event could very well be attended by some heads of state, a fact that hasn't been lost on the Padres or the San Diego Police Department, which is planning increased security in and around the ballpark, said Jeff Overton, the Padres' executive vice president of communications.
Just how crazy and raucous Petco Park gets this weekend depends greatly on the two teams that make it to the championship. If it's a Latin American team, particularly Mexico, the excitement level will be off the charts because of San Diego's large Latino population, Bloom said.
But no matter what teams are involved, the first WBC is already a winner, and looks to get even bigger in the years ahead, he said.
"I don't see anywhere this tournament goes but up."