Infielder Didi Gregorius smiles for a portrait at Baseball United Media Day at Union Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo: Leif Skodnick/World Baseball Network)
By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
CINCINNATI – Music bumped and shutters snapped under the clerestory roof of Union Hall, a co-working space in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhein neighborhood.
Bats were swung, pitching motions were rehearsed, jerseys were donned.
It was Media Day for Baseball United on Tuesday, a day that had originally been slated to be the league’s draft, but a weekend curveball – a request from the government of the United Arab Emirates to hold the draft there – changed the day’s event. Nonetheless, the show went on.
Baseball United’s first event will be the Dubai Showcase from November 10-12 at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, and Tuesday’s event got some of the players, managers, owners, and others together for a taste of what is to come. Former New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher, an owner in the league, was his effusive self, glad handing and talking baseball in a double-breasted suit. Barry Larkin, the hall of fame infielder for the Cincinnati Reds, talked about the finer points of hitting with social media consultants.
And as the event got started, some familiar names were among the first group of players to arrive: Robinson Cano, was happy and ready to do his rounds of videos, photos, and interviews, and Didi Gregorius flashed his megawatt smile for the cameras. Clad in a cream-colored linen suit, Jair Jurrjens talked about his travels since his last Major League appearance.
And then, smiling like the cat that ate the canary, Bartolo Colon entered the room. The 50-year-old, who just officially retired from Major League Baseball as a New York Met, will be pitching in the Dubai Showcase from November 10-12.
It was somewhat surreal that here, in the birthplace of professional baseball, players were being photographed and questioned about bringing baseball, America’s game, to the Indian subcontinent and the Arab world, but that’s the vision that Baseball United Kash Shaikh, the son of a father who immigrated from India and a mother who came to the United States from Pakistan, has launched here.
“I wanted to be the first South Asian guy in the big leagues. That didn’t work out, but now this next generation is going to be that,” Shaikh, who grew up in Houston, said. “Now, when you have kids in India and Pakistan seeing guys like them playing at the highest level, that’s going to inspire them to pick up a baseball, pick up a bat, pick up a glove, which is really what we want. We want to galvanize these communities and these countries to get behind the game of baseball and this is a great way to start doing that.”
A tweet Shaikh sent the day before the event revealed that 88% of the players drafted in the first four rounds have Major League Baseball experience, and that 69% of the players drafted had played in MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball, or Triple-A. Twenty-one countries will be represented among the players at the Dubai Showcase.
“I never thought I would be doing this, playing baseball over there, but once they approached me and asked me if I wanted to do it, I said yeah, why not, bring baseball to the Middle East,” Gregorius said. “It’s something good that they’re doing, so why not join it and do whatever we can to make baseball possible over there.”
It’d be hard to believe that anyone had a more interesting 2023 baseball season travel-wise than Didi Gregorious, who started the season with the Philadelphia Phillies, and played for the Algodoneros de Union Laguna in Torreon, Mexico, after the Phillies cut him loose. Then the Mariners came calling, so he went to their Triple-A affiliate, the Tacoma Rainiers. The day after Baseball United’s media day, he hopped on a plane to Prague to play with the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the European Championship. And then in November, it’s on to Dubai.
Colon isn’t going to pitch again in the Major Leagues, of course, but players who want to show they have something left to offer and are willing to fly halfway around the world to prove it will have a place in Baseball United, as will top players from India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m really excited for all the prospects in India, Pakistan, and across the Middle East. They’ve been playing at their national team levels for the last few years,” Shaikh said. “we want to start integrating them into the experience, we want them to learn on the battlefield. You know, we have the top two pitchers in India that are going to be playing for the Mumbai team. We’ve got some of the best infielders in Pakistan that are going to be playing on the Karachi team.”
Pakistan, at No. 43 in the World Baseball Rankings, is the highest-ranked nation of the three countries that will be represented at the Dubai Showcase. India is ranked 64th in the world, and the United Arab Emirates is not yet ranked.
For Shaikh, the son of an Indian father and Pakistani mother who grew up with a unique understanding of the tension between those two countries, spreading baseball across the globe is a passion.
“We’re exporting Americana, a bit of American values, American music, American fashion. People rock Yankees hats in that part of the world without really knowing who the Yankees are,”. Shaikh said. “So we have this great opportunity to transport America through baseball diplomacy, this part of the world, while also making sure that we stay cognizant and aware of the cultures that we’re embracing and moving into, which is a great learning experience and a great balance for us.”
Among those at the event Tuesday was former Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals skipper John McLaren, a man with more international baseball experience than, well, Gregorius, certainly, and almost anyone else you can think of.
“I’ve always been an ‘international guru’ type of guy,” McLaren said. “And I just love international baseball. It’s just the true passions I have. And I can’t wait to get going in Dubai.”
McLaren’s pretty well-traveled, telling World Baseball Network that he’d been to Venezuela, Colombia, and Europe while working for Major League Baseball and several MLB organizations. He was Team USA’s third-base coach at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, and then managed China in two World Baseball Classics.
“One thing that I love about baseball, it brings people together,” said, McLaren, who will be managing one of the teams in the Dubai Showcase. “In Venezuela, even with the politics they had down there, when it was time to play baseball, everybody put all the differences aside and they came together as one.
“To me, that’s what we need to do as a society and a world, and I think baseball has a place to do that.”