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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Baseball is called America’s “National Pastime.” But the way the game is growing, it should be referred to as “The World’s Pastime.”
The sport has rapidly spread around the globe and especially taken root in Latin America. Countries that have especially adopted the game as growing elements of their culture include Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
A ball and stick are starting to rival the popularity of a soccer ball and net, giving children the dreams of going to America, where it’s common for major league players to earn millions of dollars to swing a bat and catch a ball.
“One of my priorities – one of the game's priorities – is the internationalization of baseball,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig recently told reporters. “We're doing everything we can to move the sport in an international direction. I think it's going to be absolutely spectacular.”
At the end of last season, 42.6% of all minor league players were natives of countries outside the United States and 80% of them came from two countries: the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, according to ESPN.com.
But many in Latin America do not understand how the game works.
A game lasts nine innings, each consisting of a top and bottom half. The visiting team bats in the top of the inning, while the home team hits during the bottom portion. Each half-inning lasts until the fielding team records three outs. Outs happen when a player catches a ball before it hits the ground, tags a runner with the ball if he’s not on first, second or third base or has the ball when he touches a base before a runner who is forced to advance reaches it.
Each hitter gets an unlimited number of pitches to try to hit a ball into play, which is between the first and third base lines. However, if a hitter draws four balls – pitches determined by the umpire not to have crossed over the plate, known as the strike zone – he automatically advances to first base. But if a player gets three strikes by swinging and missing the ball or not hitting a pitch judged to be in the strike zone by the umpire, he’s out. The strike zone is an area over home plate between the knees and front jersey letters of the batter.
If a player hits the ball, but it is not in play and not caught before striking the ground by the fielding team, it is a foul ball – and counts as a strike. Hitters, however, cannot earn a third strike by hitting a foul ball, meaning a hitter could hit 20 foul balls and get yet another pitch.
If a player hits the ball over the outfield fence on the fly, it’s a home run, and he – and anyone who is on base – runs around the bases and steps on home plate. Teams are awarded one “run” for every player who touches first, second, third and home plate – in that order – in the same half-inning.
Whichever team is leading after nine innings is the winner. If the game is tied after nine innings, the game continues with alternating at-bats until one team is ahead at the end of the inning.
The complexity of the rules is frustrating for some new fans, but it hasn’t prohibited the game from exploding in Latin America.
“In Venezuela, in the Dominican, in Colombia, in Panama, they love it because they don't have anything else to do,” Detroit Tigers designated hitter Carlos Guillén, a native of Maracay, Venezuela, told ESPN.com, “Everyone is either going to baseball games or trying to play baseball. You see kids in the streets playing baseball with paper balls, trying to make baseballs out of anything just to play ball in the street. There, they close the street to play baseball. Here, you're not going to see that.”
Once players reach America, their dreams turn to focusing on advancing through an extensive minor league system, where the best players are promoted to the major leagues. Major League Baseball is composed of two parts – the American and National Leagues.
The National League is comprised of 16 teams and three divisions – the East, Central and West. The American League, which has 14 teams, also has an East, Central and West.
The biggest difference between the leagues is that while pitchers bat in the National League, the American League features a designated hitter to bat for the pitcher.
At the end of the 162-game regular season, each division winner and the league’s second place team with the best record make the playoffs. The first round, known as the Divisional Series, is a best-of-five series. The winning teams advance to the Championship Series, a best-of-seven series in which the winner advances to the World Series. The World Series is one of the biggest events on the American sports calendar. The team that wins the best-of-seven series is declared the season’s champion.
Baseball’s format likely will never change, but the flair injected by the dozens of Latin American players in the major leagues has proved the game’s boundaries extend well beyond the United States.
“Our guys definitely play the game different,” said Juan Samuel, the third baseman for the Dominican at the 2007 World Baseball Classic, told ESPN.com. “We’re more flashy. We probably enjoy it more – because that's all we do. Kids in America are playing soccer, playing hockey, playing golf. You don't see guys from the Dominican playing in any golf tournaments. You don't see guys from the Dominican getting scholarships to play golf.”