St. Louis Cardinals slugger and homerun record holder Mark McGwire had a bone to pick with Major League Baseball. He was none too happy that the first regular season game of the 2000 campaign, matching the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets, was played outside the United States—in Japan, no less. The major leagues had sold out for money, McGwire said, in staging the games overseas. Now, there’s a surprise.

McGwire was the first athlete in any major professional sport to voice misgivings about playing a regular season game outside the United States. Baseball has joined professional hockey and basketball in forcing regular fans, at least those not prone to insomnia, to wait a day to find out how their teams fared. Pro football has played overseas exhibition games for several years.

But McGwire may be wrong when he says baseball’s sellout is only about money. Deeper forces are at work in the glass towers that house the offices of professional sports. There is a conscious desire at the highest levels of these organizations to take their sports global; to think not just of the fans in section AA of the upper deck but also those living in yurts in the Gobi Desert. One can be a Chicago Bears’ fan in Aruba just as well as in Aurora, right?

Then again, maybe it is about money: about increasing your fan base, market share, television rights, and licensing agreements. The foreign fan can buy sports merchandise and follow his favorite team with a satellite dish on the top of his tin-roof shack. Kosovo Albanians wore Michael Jordan jerseys in their refugee camps. Yugoslav youths often wear baseball caps bearing their favorite NBA logos.

Remember how impressed you were when the Super Bowl announcers would say how many people around the world were watching the game along with you? Remember how cute it was to listen to the Japanese announcers call the play-by-play in the Rose Bowl for a few seconds?

That was back when America, the leader of the free world, allowed its subjects a peek at what Americans do with their spare time on January afternoons. And to imitate us, other countries imported these sports. Americans fighting overseas in the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as those maintaining the empire’s garrisons in peacetime, helped export America’s sports culture. One could not be a good communist and play baseball (except in Cuba). If Lyndon Johnson had not sent troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965, would we have Sammy Sosa today?

One by one, American sports like basketball, football, and baseball followed the conquistadors all over the world, the way draft horses followed the Spaniards, or the way cricket, rugby, polo, badminton, lawn tennis, and soccer followed the British Empire.

Now, the consequences are washing up on our shores, as Japanese cars did after we rebuilt Japan’s industrial capacity. A quarter of Major League Baseball players are from overseas, mostly from the Caribbean Basin, but increasingly from Asia. Europeans and Africans are pouring into the National Basketball Association. Watch an NBA draft, and see how many names you cannot pronounce.

Pro scouts are convinced that there is a dearth of skilled American players. They need foreign players to keep their teams competitive, just as treacherous American multinationals search for computer engineers from India while 45-year-old American technophiles look for work.

The major leagues have expanded into every nook and cranny of the country until there isn’t enough great local talent to fill all of the available slots. NBA teams draft kids fresh out of high school or after one season of college ball and then whine about how poor the quality of play is. Qualified coaches are in short supply for youth leagues. Budget cuts and “gender-equity” schemes have ravaged school sports programs at all levels of education.

Still, in order to keep interest high in faraway places and to make sure those kids keep dreaming, NBA and MLB officials talk openly about establishing franchises off the North American continent. The Cubs could open their season in Japan—not against the New York Mets, but against a Tokyo team. Now that’s a road trip everyone’s looking forward to.

Those who run professional basketball, baseball, and hockey see themselves as citizens of the world. The idea that basketball and baseball are American sports, and that American fans should be catered to, is as quaint as a peach basket. There’s too much money to be made in trying to make little Croatians into little Michael Jordans. Would Serbs and Croats grow up to hate each other if as children, they were fans of both Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac? Forget religion, family, race, background, and place. An orange ball and an iron hoop are the ties that bind.

Football, by contrast, doesn’t market itself to the world so shamelessly. Yes, there is a “World League” of mostly European teams. But pitting one team of American castoffs and refugees against another is not going to threaten soccer. Soccer, on the other hand, could threaten football in the United States. Politicians fight over the votes of the millions of moms who take their kids to games and practices in their minivans. No one seems to fight for the football moms’ vote. Especially in the nation’s inner cities, football is an endangered sport.

While soccer has never penetrated the nation’s sport psyche, that may change, with millions of immigrants pouring in from soccer-playing countries. And as these immigrants fan out from the cities, ports, and borderlands, they threaten football’s dominance in the cradle of the sport: America’s Rust Belt and Deep South.

That leaves hockey, Canada’s national pastime. It, too, has been flooded with foreigners, although many have argued that the game is much better since the influx of Russians, Swedes, and Czechs.

But to many Canadians (especially commentator Don Cherry), this rankles. Their sport is slowly being taken away from them. Two Canadian National Hockey League teams have moved to the United States, and more may be on their way. The NHL’s honchos, many of them former NBA executives, have pushed the game to the American Sunbelt so that places like Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas, and Raleigh can service all those transplanted and cowardly Northern carpetbaggers nostalgic for ice, if only inside a building. Wales, Campbell, Adams, Norris, and Smythe divisions and conferences have given way to East, West, Northwest, and South. The All-Star Came consists of North American players against the World.

Exporting sports seems to be mostly an American phenomenon. I don’t see the Afghan national pastime—throwing a dead goat around while on horseback— taking off in the United States. There are no rings set up for Tinkey’s national sport, camel wrestling. Nor have U.S. racing tracks been adapted for Saudi Arabia’s national pastime, camel racing. And 1 still can’t find cricket wickets in the parks where I live. In the Upper Midwest, European sports brought by immigrants, such as curling, cross-country skiing, and speed skating, have only small followings.

When France won the World Cup of soccer in 1998, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen pointed out that many of the players were immigrants from Francophone ex-colonies, since the French themselves were not exactly smitten with soccer. Could we see the day when a U.S. professional baseball team is loaded with players from somewhere else? Or the World Series is won by a team made up primarily of foreigners? Or the NBA World Championship is won by a team from Beijing? If so, and if you complain, the powers-that-be will simply say, “Hey, that’s why there’s ‘World’ on that trophy, xenophobe!” before recommending you for psychiatric treatment, à la John Rocker.