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A Cultural Curveball: Cross-cultural Lessons from the World Baseball Classic

By Jay Thorne

Through the month of March, as Major League Baseball teams around America prepared for Opening Day of the 2017 season, baseball players and baseball fans from around the world came together for a 3-week, 16-nation international tournament called the World Baseball Classic.

It was a blur of color, talent and patriotism matching diverse countries from all over the world. This year, four different pools of teams started the competition in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Guadalajara.

The baseball was as advertised – exceptional and played with passion.

But what came with it was a quick primer on working in a cross-cultural environment. What happens with multinational corporations and businesses who courageously cross borders to do business happens on the baseball diamond, too.

The vast majority of the players not only knew one another, but they spend the Spring and Summer playing side by side as teammates on American Major League clubs. Only this tournament was different; players were pitted against one another in the name of their home country.

The opening weeks of the tournament were colorfully competitive as teams took the field from such diverse countries as Israel, Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Netherlands, among others.

As the tournament reached its championship round, the competition between high-performing athletes grew more intense. And, like any business that operates under stress, cultural differences rose to the surface. The final round included teams from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan and the United States. Not surprisingly, the personalities of the teams reflected the cultures of the country from which they came.

As the tournament reached it’s final stages, it was an American whose comments raised eyebrows when Team USA second baseman Ian Kinsler commented on how the two squads show their passion for the game differently. Here’s the excerpt that's making the rounds, courtesy of the New York Times:

“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler said. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Social media lent a hand and in less than 24 hours, Kinsler’s comments had brought angry responses from Latino players and online bloggers, and a “clarification” from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred whose comments celebrated the diversity of the league.

One player, Kansas City Royals infielder Christian Colon, who is a Puerto Rico native, responded to Kinsler's comments, per Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star: "It's the truth. We got flair, and he don't."

On cue, after winning the championship game by defeating Puerto Rico, 8-0, Kinsler said the entire tournament was a showcase of cultural differences.

“What I said was that American kids can watch American players play; Puerto Rican kids can watch Puerto Rican players play; Venezuelan kids can watch Venezuelan guys play. And that’s who they emulate,” Kinsler said. “That’s who they watch. That’s who they want to be like. There’s nothing wrong with an American kid watching a Puerto Rican player and wanting to be like them, or a Puerto Rican kid watching an American player and wanting to play that way."

“You should play the way you want, and the way you feel will put you in the best position to win -- the way you feel the best and perform the best,” Kinsler continued. “Everybody is different. I play differently than a lot of my teammates on this team; I play with a little more emotion than most players during the season. Everybody has their own style! That’s all I was saying.”  

“This is what this tournament is for, to demonstrate the game in all walks of life, all over the globe. You saw the way Japanese players play; they play different than us. The Latin teams play different than us. Everyone should be celebrated. That is what this tournament is about, and that’s why everyone loves it, ‘cause you get to see people play [in front of] people from their own country and the different styles of baseball. One is not better than the other; they are just different.”

Like art or fashion, sports are a mirror that reflect our life and times and our culture.

One of the things that has earned baseball such a special place in American society, among the many beauties of the timeless summer pastime, is that major league baseball has reflected the progress and maturation of the country it so uniquely represents. What has happened in America, happens in baseball – race relations and integration (Jackie Robinson), westward expansion in the post WWII era, or now, internationalization.

Having a global mindset, no matter what business you are in, will help you succeed.

Even the business of baseball.


Thunderbird School of Global Management believes having a global mindset is integral to success. That's why Thunderbird's degree and executive education programs are commited to helping you assess, grow and leverage your global mindset. To learn more, register today for our upcoming Global Mindset for Strategic Leadership course that runs April 10-13 on our Glendale, Arizona campus.

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 The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.