It’s March 31 and the temperature is finally beginning to warm after a long, cold winter. For many Americans, spring actually begins today -- Opening Day of the Major League Baseball (MLB) season.
While baseball is America’s national pastime, the sport’s popularity is not limited to the United States. More than 25 percent of last season’s Major Leaguers were born abroad, representing more than 15 countries. Because of the sport’s global popularity, people around the world welcome the official start of another action-packed season on the baseball diamond. The relationships cemented by baseball’s popularity illustrate the ability of athletics to transcend cultural boundaries. Recognizing this reach, the State Department capitalizes on sports diplomacy to foster new relationships, using hands-on, people-to-people exchanges to promote cross-cultural communication.
Youths at the Metropolitan Autonomous University Iztapalapa wave American flags as they meet Major League Baseball 13-time All-Star Ken Griffey, Jr. and Olympic softball champion Natasha Watley in Mexico City, Mexico, March 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Sellout crowds outside the United States exemplify how our national pastime connects with global audiences. On March 22, in front of sold-out crowds of 40,000 fans, Australia hosted two games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The two-game series at the Sydney Cricket Ground served as the MLB’s debut Down Under. The Sydney series continues MLB’s recent tradition of international opening days. Monterrey, Mexico opened international baseball in 1999. Professional ballplayers also competed in league-sanctioned exhibition games during the MLB Chinese Series in 2008 and the Taiwan All-Star Series in 2011. Tokyo has hosted four international games, most recently in 2012.
Young athletes participate in a clinic with U.S. Sports Envoy and Major League Baseball All-Star Ken Griffey, Jr., in Mexico City, Mexico, March 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Several recent State Department programs focused on "diamond diplomacy." Earlier this month, Major League Baseball great Ken Griffey, Jr. and 2004 Olympic softball gold medalist Natasha Watley stepped up to the plate for a program hosted by U.S. Embassy Mexico City. The duo conducted clinics and activities for hundreds of young Mexican baseball and softball players. The youngsters not only improved their skills, but also learned the importance of communication, teamwork, dedication, and respect for diversity.
In locations including Nicaragua, Ecuador, Korea, Taiwan, and Colombia, the Department has conducted similar programs with Hall of Famers Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken Jr., as well as softball gold medalist Jessica Mendoza. In recent years, the State Department has welcomed sports visitors from Honduras, the Philippines, and Iraq for baseball-focused programs.
Opening Day provides an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the international appeal of this quintessential American game, and showcases how the culminating event that decides the MLB champion each October is truly a "World Series."
About the Author: Erin Reaney serves in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.