This article was written by Gordon J. Gattie
This article was published in The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)
Editor’s note: This article is a fictional press release from our special issue of The National Pastime looking ahead to the future of baseball in the 21st century.
INTERCONTINENTAL BASEBALL LEAGUE SCHEDULED TO START LEAGUE PLAY IN 2039
(Geneva, Switzerland) — Several national baseball organizations throughout the world jointly announced today the creation of the Intercontinental Baseball League (ICBL), the world’s first worldwide baseball league. Following earlier multinational competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, the Olympics, and numerous international exhibitions, the ICBL will feature eight divisions composed of eight teams from across the six populated continents.
The ICBL is slated to begin competition in 2039, the 200th anniversary of the mythical beginnings of American baseball in Cooperstown, New York. The world’s largest countries and most populated cities have joined this unique endeavor. Most countries field a single ICBL team, but some have two (Canada, Japan) and the the world’s three most populous countries (China, India, and the United States of America) each having three teams.
The ICBL will differ from existing leagues in several ways: a worldwide presence, increased participation from countries more recently associated with baseball, mixed-sex rosters, player eligibility based on citizenship, timed nine-inning games, relocated umpires, and youth exhibition games preceding the ICBL ballgames.
The eight divisions are named according to geographic location, with cities listed in alphabetical order:
- North America: Chicago (United States), Guatemala City (Guatemala), Havana (Cuba), Los Angeles (United States), Mexico City (Mexico), New York City (United States), Toronto (Canada), Vancouver (Canada)
- South America: Bogotá (Colombia), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Caracas (Venezuela), Lima (Peru), Quito (Ecuador), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Santiago (Chile), Sao Paulo (Brazil)
- Europe: Ankara (Turkey), Berlin (Germany), Kyiv (Ukraine), London (United Kingdom), Madrid (Spain), Paris (France), Rome (Italy), Warsaw (Poland)
- Northern Africa: Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bamako (Mali), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco), Douala (Cameroon), Giza (Egypt), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
- Southern Africa: Cape Town (South Africa), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa), Kampala (Uganda), Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Nairobi (Kenya)
- Western Asia: Baghdad (Iraq), Delhi (India), Istanbul (Turkey), Jerusalem (Israel), Karachi (Pakistan), Kolkata (India), Mumbai (India), Tehran (Iran)
- Eastern Asia: Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Chongqing (People’s Republic of China), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Moscow (Russia), Osaka (Japan), Seoul (South Korea), Shanghai (People’s Republic of China), Tokyo (Japan)
- Southeastern Asia/Australia: Bangkok (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Jakarta (Indonesia), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Manila (Philippines), Singapore (Singapore), Sydney (Australia), Yangon (Myanmar)
Division names have not yet been assigned; for the first season, the division names will reflect the division teams’ geographic area. While team home cities have been finalized, team nicknames and logos will be announced at a later date.
The ICBL’s initial season will include a 120-game regular season and a 16-team, four-round postseason. During the regular season, teams will play two four-game series against each intradivisional opponent and two four-game series against all eight teams in a competing, geographically-adjacent division. Teams will play a single four-game series on a Monday-Thursday schedule, with Friday-Sunday reserved for travel, cultural, and religious events.
While this league will be travel-intensive, reducing time zone crossings will be considered whenever possible to minimize players’ circadian rhythm interruptions when scheduling ballgames. The interdivisional games matchups will consist of North America-South America, Europe-Western Asia, Northern Africa-Southern Africa, and Eastern Asia-Southeastern Asia/Australia.
Based on the 120-game season, the regular season will last 30 weeks, with a full week off between weeks 10-11 and 20-21.
The top two teams in each division are eligible for post-season play; with eight divisions, 16 of 64 teams will be eligible for post-season play. The first playoff round will feature the top two teams in each division squaring off for the division title in a best-of-three series. The eight division winners will be seeded #1 through #8 based on their regular season winning percentage.
In the event of a tie, face-to-face records will be the first tie-breaker, regular season run differentials for all regular season games will be the second tie-breaker, and face-to-face run differentials will be the third tie-breaker. The second playoff round will feature the #1 seed versus the #8 seed, #2 seed against the #7 seed, #3 seed versus the #6 seed, and #4 seed against the #5 seed. The second playoff round will feature a three-game series with locations yet to be determined. The third round will have the #1-#8 series winner play the #4-#5 series winner, with the winner advancing to the ICBL Championship. The other matchup will have the #2-#7 series winner face the #3-#6 series winner for the other spot in the ICBL Championship. The final two rounds will be decided using a best-of-five format.
Rosters and Player Eligibility
Each team will assemble a 50-player roster with a to-be-determined salary cap and individual contract limitations. Active rosters will consist of 40 players; transactions moving players with the active and 10-person non-active roster will occur on weekends between series.
The league will not restrict player eligibility based on race nor any other demographic characteristic. Players may identify as either male or female. The recent significant successes in women’s baseball leagues worldwide and the mixed success of integrated mixed-sex leagues in certain countries and territories, has increased the sex diversity of the player talent pool greatly.
With the increase in prosthetics, artificial intelligence, elective surgeries, and robotics, the ongoing discussion of cyborg definition and eligibility will continue to be debated in the coming years. For the first three seasons of ICBL play, and in keeping with the standards of other international sporting governing bodies (e.g., International Olympic Committee, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)), cyborgs will be ineligible as players. For ICBL purposes, cyborgs are defined as a combination of a living organism with robotic enhancements, and may be classified as either restorative or enhanced. While the eligibility of restored cyborgs will likely be established internationally within the next five years, we expect enhanced cyborgs to remain ineligible due to the outsized competitive advantage of robotic enhancements.
Countries will be free to assemble their rosters as customs and traditions allow; the only requirement will be similar to the precedent set by the World Baseball Classic from the early 2000s, where a player, or player’s parent, is currently a citizen or permanent member of the country he or she will be representing. In cases where a player merits eligibility on his or her own citizenship, proof of citizenship such as a valid birth certificate, passport, or government-issued identification must be provided. In cases where a player’s eligibility is based on a parent’s citizenship, the player must provide their own birth certificate, with parents clearly identified, and a parent’s birth certificate, passport, other government-issued identification, or death certificate.
In cases where a player is eligible to represent multiple countries’ teams, the player may select one country as his or her team that season. One player cannot play for multiple countries during a single season, though they may play on different teams within a single country, and may switch countries between seasons. Players must provide eligibility at least 90 days prior to Opening Day.
Players including pitchers must appear in at least 50% of their team’s games in a given season to participate in postseason play. Based on the current 120-game season with no cancelled games, at minimum, players need to make one plate appearance or play one inning in the field in at least 60 games. (See below: the ICBL will not allow the designated hitter.)
There are no restrictions on a player’s professional status; current and past professional ballplayers are eligible to play, with ICBL teams making relevant agreements with a player’s current professional organization.
Operations and Notable Rules
Based on perceived and real economic inequalities among the countries participating in the league, the ICBL will institute a league-wide revenue sharing approach; the sum total of broadcast rights sales, stadium naming sales, gate receipts, concessions, and souvenirs will be split equally among the teams. League officials are currently debating the percentage allocations given to host countries, players, and team management and staff.
Gameplay rules from established leagues in the United States (Major League Baseball), Australia (Australian Baseball League), China/Taiwan (Chinese Professional Baseball League), Cuba (Cuban National Series), Italy (Italian Baseball League), Japan (Nippon Professional Baseball), Korea (Unified Korean Baseball Association), Nigeria (Nigerian Baseball Organization), and Venezuela (Venezuelan Professional Baseball League) helped shape the ICBL rules, with some slight modifications.
Ballfield dimensions: Playing fields will feature the diamond-shaped, 90-foot basepaths, and will use the 60-feet six-inch distance from the pitcher’s plate to home plate used internationally, as originally established in American baseball. The outfield dimensions will have a minimum-maximum range based on land availability and ballpark elevation, though notional distances between home plate and the outfield walls will range from at least 100 meters (328 feet) to no more than 125 meters (410 feet), with wall heights ranging from three meters (9.8 feet) to five meters (16.4 feet). The pitcher’s plate will rise .25 meters (10 inches) above the playing surface, with a consistent slope of one inch per foot from six inches in front of the pitcher’s plate to the playing surface.
Time Limit: Teams will play nine-inning games, though no full inning may start two hours and 30 minutes after the first pitch is thrown. The so-called curfew rule has been adopted from Major League Baseball, which instituted it to staunch shrinking attendance correlated with shrinking attention spans. This approach mirrors the rules of worldwide Formula One racing, where races are completed after a certain number of laps or a two-hour time limit. League members are exploring additional options for ensuring timely pace of game; there will be fewer in-game promotions and television commercial breaks compared with other professional leagues.
Fourth-Inning Feast: One unique feature of ICBL ballgames will be the “Fourth-Inning Feast.” Analogous to the tradition practiced in the US and Japan of the seventh-inning stretch when fans stand and sing a song, the Fourth-Inning Feast will feature a sampling of the host nation or city’s notable cuisine, with a lucky section or row receiving the food delivered directly to their seats. Informal competitions among prominent chefs to showcase their dishes has already occurred in several countries.
No Designated Hitter: After significant debate, league founders decided against allowing designated hitters. Based on the notable proliferation and success of star two-way players following in Shohei Ohtani’s footsteps, the ICBL decided against allowing specialized pitching or batting roles in the league.
Assisted Umpiring: Rather than crouching behind the catcher as usually seen in most professional leagues, or standing behind the pitcher as seen in many youth leagues, the umpire will be located in an undisclosed location near the playing field, but not directly on the field. The umpire will have access to audio, video, and biometric telemetry feeds in real-time. League officials are also exploring the use of augmented reality to assist with play calling.
Equipment: While most foundational decisions have been made, issues related to game equipment (e.g., catchers’ gear), uniform requirements, rules, and official statistics will be finalized in the coming months.
One major concern permeating the worldwide sports industry is the potential ability of androids and cyborgs to completely dominate living ballplayers. Technological advancements in prosthetics, artificial intelligence, and robotics have made possible the development of baseball teams consisting entirely of “robot ballplayers.” Androids — completely robotic entities resembling a human-will be ineligible to play in ICBL. They and other forms of robots with silicon-based cognition will be allowed to participate in limited roles, such as batting practice pitcher, pitching practice catcher, or retrieving balls hit during batting practice.
Cyborgs with carbon-based cognition are expected to have well-developed cognitive and physical capabilities for full participation during games. Restored cyborgs have played in exhibition games against minor league players in Japan, China, and the United States. While differences in cognitive and physical abilities occur naturally, ICBL wants to focus on human versus human competition, as opposed to human-enhanced cyborg versus human-enhanced cyborg competition. League members are currently debating where to draw the line between necessary medical treatment and robotic enhancements that would provide an unfair advantage.
ICBL founders have initiated discussions with participating nations and teams regarding minor leagues to serve as a developmental opportunity for future ICBL players. ICBL founders are currently debating minor league size, location, and playing time during the calendar year; founders have been split between playing ICBL major and minor league seasons concurrently and starting the minor league season after the major league season has started. The second issue related to establishing minor leagues is game locations. Since the major and minor leagues will overlap, and may run concurrently, minor league games may be placed in other cities for scheduling and financial reasons.
Recognizing that many professional ballplayers may make more money playing for a team in their own national organization instead of an international organization, ICBL is exploring options for providing incentives to professional national baseball organizations, allowing their players to participate in ICBL during the individual national organization’s off-season or on a limited basis during their regular season. However, players will still be required to participate in at least half of their team’s games to be eligible for postseason games.
Encouraging youth worldwide to play baseball is a foundational value for the ICBL. Before every ICBL game, two local youth baseball teams will compete in a three-inning exhibition game using the same field that the major league ICBL players use. During the ICBL game, youth players from the exhibition game will accompany ICBL players to their positions during the top and bottom of the first inning.
The ICBL is excited to start league play for the 2039 season! As the largest league to date, with a worldwide presence spanning six continents, the ICBL seeks to quickly become a global phenomenon. Participation from countries not ordinarily associated with baseball will not only introduce baseball to a new generation of fans, the league will potentially contribute to global stability. ICBL standards such as mixed-sex rosters, time-limited games, telemetry-assisted umpires, and youth exhibition partnerships will provide an example for individual nationally-based baseball organizations to follow during the coming years.
GORDON J. GATTIE is a lifelong baseball fan and SABR member since 1998. A civilian US Navy engineer, his baseball research interests include ballparks, historical trends, and statistical analysis. Gordon earned his PhD from SUNY Buffalo, where he used baseball to investigate judgment performance in complex dynamic environments. Ever the optimist, he dreams of a Cleveland Indians World Series championship. Lisa, his wonderful wife who roots for the New York Yankees, and Morrigan, their beloved Labrador Retriever, enjoy traveling across the country visiting ballparks and other baseball-related sites. Gordon has contributed to several SABR publications, including multiple issues of The National Pastime and the Games Project.