heinnews’s David Hein was in Regensburg, Germany for the press conference announcing the Bavarian city as the host city for one of the four qualifying tournaments for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Germany, Canada, Czech Republic and Great Britain will face off from September 20-24, 2012 for one spot in next year’s baseball spectacle. Hein caught up with Clive Russell, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Major League Baseball International. They discussed why Regensburg was named as a host city; the facilities in Regensburg; baseball in Germany; and the expansion of the World Baseball Classic.
heinnews: Regensburg has been awarded one of the four qualifying tournaments for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Talk a bit about what you and the organizers were looking for when deciding the host cities.
Russell: World Baseball Classic Inc has looked around the world where baseball is developing, where the hotbeds and highlights are, who has been organizing high quality tournaments. And if you look back at the 2009 World Cup, the outstanding job that the local team the Regensburg Legionäre did with the city to organize that pool and the USA-Germany game – we’ve all seen the pictures, it was truly amazing. So I was always on our radar.
And then we really went through a process of saying okay we want to expand the tournament, we want to add qualifiers. The four teams who didn’t win a game in the 2009 tournament will drop out and have to re-qualify, and we’re going to have pools or mini tournaments to do that. We started looking around the world.
One of the big ideas of the World Baseball Classic is not just to have a great tournament but to spread the game of baseball, grow the awareness and participation. And if you take the tournament to the same places all the time you’re not going to be able to do that. So we really looked at where else we can do that.
heinnews: And it would that Europe would be a good choice?
Russell: Europe has been front of mind for us in terms of development and the challenges of integrating ourselves into that place. So we really looked at Europe. Holland and Italy were already in the tournament proper. So there’s not a reason necessarily to go there. So we started looking at who those other participants were and who had the strongest most credible bid.
We talked to the French, we talked to the Spanish. We even went down to Cape Town and talked to the South Africans. We had a quick chat with the Israelis to talk about whether there was something there. We talked to Great Britain if there was an opportunity there. We looked at all those places and gave everybody a real chance to make a bid. And the German Baseball Federation’s bid was clearly the strongest bid. And their candidature city – Regensburg – was just such an overwhelming choice for us in terms of the organizing committee, in terms of the heritage here, in terms of the city support and participation in everything we do, the corporates are here and the hotels. The relationships that those guys have built up over time, it just became obvious that really we’d be fools not to bring it here.
heinnews: Regensburg is just one of many Germany cities with a strong baseball facility. Many new ones are coming up. What does MLB International think of that?
Russell: There are a lot of new stadiums here and there’s been a lot of development. It’s been a fantastic couple of years in terms of seeing new stadia in a couple of places – permanent homes for baseball in Germany. In the next time around, Regensburg might have a bit more of a battle against it to try to hold on to that host role.
heinnews: Where do you rank the facilities in Regensburg – the Armin Wolf Arena and the surrounding amenities?
Russell: I would say it’s the top ten without question. The top five I think you could start making a strong argument for it. One to five …
heinnews: What are some of the other top baseball cities in Europe?
Russell: Rotterdam is a really strong, Haarlem – where those big tournaments have been taking place. There’s a really nice ballpark in Grosseto, in Bologna. There’s a really fantastic facility in Sicily. Obviously the Greek Olympic facility is still a very high quality facility. So there are a number of facilities out there. But if you talk about the infrastructure, how the town has bought in, the transport links and all of those kinds of things, Regensburg starts jumping further and further up that list.
heinnews: What do you think Regensburg must now do the most before September comes around?
Russell: We have a full plan in place for these guys to build out this stadium and the rest of it. You know what it is? Every single day put another brick on that wall and the foundation that’s going to build this thing. There are a lot of seats that still need to go up. There are a lot of tickets that still need to be sold. But equally on my side I need to deliver some stuff as well. I need to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with our TV deal. We’ve got lots of licensing things that we would like to do. There are a lot of steps.
heinnews: Let’s talk briefly about baseball in Germany. There have been more and more Germans signed by MLB teams – Donald Lutz is close to making the Cincinnati Reds. There was the big 800,000-euro contract the Minnesota Twins gave Max Kepler. And the list goes on with all of these academies here producing talent. Where do you see Germany baseball wise?
Russell: They finished third in last year’s European Championship. As you said, these guys who have signed. I think in three to five years you’re going to see an absolutely stud German team. And they could, like the South Africans did in the 2006 World Baseball Classic against Canada, bring up some young kids who just didn’t know who they were playing and played out of their skin. Germany has some really, really solid players. And actually if you look at that next age group down, the people that are just starting in those academies you have some real athletes. And that’s the key. You need to get those athletes and put them through the system. And Martin Brunner and the various academy structures are really starting to see that.
heinnews: And German baseball people are finally getting those athletes instead of having them go to football or handball or volleyball or basketball.
Russell: Well, when you see what number Kepler signed for it starts becoming a viable proposition for an athlete. And you don’t necessarily have to choose something that is a bit more economically right for your family.
heinnews: I know you don’t want to give the other three sites away where the qualifying tournaments will take place. But can you give us a time frame on when that will happen?
Russell: I would guess in the next seven days. But the reason we’re not announcing them today is because we would like each of them to have their thunder.
heinnews: With the World Baseball Classic qualifiers now in place, what kind of impact do you think that will have on the game?
Russell: Germany is now focused on the World Baseball Classic. Before they were focused on waiting for the tournament to happen and watching it on TV. And that’s happening in the other 12 participating countries who are now coming in. And it’s re-focused those four teams who were dropping out to want to be back in.