By Larry Fine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Major League Baseball (MLB) has no desire to see the World Baseball Classic played at a different time of year despite a chorus of critics who say the tournament is lacking many of the game's top players.
A disappointing showing by the United States, which was eliminated in the second round, has raised some discontent about the format by U.S. media, but MLB executive vice president for business Tim Brosnan said those critics were missing the point.
"The object is to get people around the world paying attention to baseball," Brosnan told Reuters in an on-field interview during batting practice before Sunday's semi-final between Japan and Puerto Rico.
"And most importantly people in countries where baseball is not endemic to their culture."
To that end, Brosnan, who helps oversee the joint venture by MLB and the MLB Players Association, called the WBC "an unqualified success".
Staging the WBC in March when MLB players are shaking off the rust from an idle winter, has led some star players to stay with their clubs to prepare, while others feel they are not yet ready to compete at top form in a meaningful competition.
It has also led to poor TV ratings in the United States.
Asked why the WBC did not follow the National Hockey League model of foregoing its All-Star game and extending that mid-season break to allow players to be in the Olympics, Brosnan said MLB owners believed it would hurt their business too much.
"Business arrangements of the 30 clubs are not set out to take a two-week break in the middle of the summertime every four years," he said.
He also rejected the idea of streamlining the tournament to better be able to fit it in during a mid-season break when players were at peak form.
"You want more countries to compete," said Brosnan. "You don't want this to be, you pick the elite four and have a tournament.
"You want 100 countries eventually saying I have a shot, I want to play in the qualifiers in the off two years.
"The object is not to gather around our clubby little group and decide let's have the best four teams play a baseball tournament," added Brosnan.
Brosnan said the interest level in the U.S. was secondary to the mission of growing the game globally.
He was excited that Brazil qualified among the final 16 teams from the initial 28-team field and pointed to the success of the Netherlands, Italy, China and Taiwan and the attention they received as evidence of the impact of the WBC.
"It's an unqualified success," said Brosnan. "We're sitting here looking at the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico," he added about teams from the Caribbean islands who have long embraced baseball.
"But everybody forgets Brazil qualified for this tournament. Soccer-mad Brazil, probably the country where the middle class is going to grow the fastest of any country in the next decade.
"To get the passion for baseball in a country like Brazil for a tournament like this? Money can't buy that. It's the promise of competing on a world stage that buys that, that buys that passion."
FERTILE GROWTH AREA
Brosnan also pointed to China as a fertile area of growth.
"China believes that they can compete with their east Asian neighbors on a worldwide stage," he said, referring to baseball power Japan, winner of the first two WBC titles, and South Korea.
"They now have the promise to compete in a global sport on a global stage."
With baseball eliminated from the Olympic program over frustration at not getting top stars involved due to the timing conflict with the major league season and a lack of broad popularity of the game, MLB and the players' association took it upon themselves to run an elite international competition.
Yet passion for the tournament has been slow to build in the United States, where baseball already reigns as the 'Summer Game'.
The U.S. team also failed to advance past the second round in the 2006 inaugural WBC and in 2009 lost in the semi-finals to Japan.
Brosnan agreed that success by the U.S. team would have boosted the tournament's profile.
"Can't argue with that," he said, but was quick to point out positive results in other markets.
Brosnan pointed to the Netherlands, which advanced all the way to the semi-finals and have committed to building a new $13 million national baseball stadium.
The MLB executive gushed about the exposure the tournament received in Taiwan when their team played against Japan.
"It was the highest two television shows ever broadcast on cable in Chinese Taipei, with half the country watching the Japan games. Higher than the Summer Olympics in 2012, higher than the Japan World Cup qualifiers."
The end of the Puerto Rico semi-finals win over Japan drew 74 percent of TV viewers on the Caribbean island, and attendance overall had increased by some 80,000 to nearly 900,000.
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)