Major League Baseball, like the country, traffics in contradiction. Revenues are estimated at a record $10 billion for 2017, with some league sources suggesting the number could soar to as high as $12 billion. But its leaders treat the game as though it nears extinction, advocating a host of tradition-altering changes out of fear that today’s screen-addicted fans will soon swipe left on the boring old institution. Now, as MLB purposely markets itself locally, it tries to sell an international showpiece, the World Baseball Classic (which runs through March 22).
Not long ago, baseball considered itself in a “renaissance” as the money multiplied during the steroid era, but its greatest players increasingly found the grand jury door open and the one to the Hall of Fame closed. In the aftermath, MLB conceded the national stage to the NBA and NFL. Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. and Bo Jackson once were in this mix, but the faces of American sports are LeBron James and Tom Brady. Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry and Peyton Manning-each one commands a big stage and big marketing. They’re as well-known across the globe as they are in the cities where they’ve played. Baseball’s answer to giving its players that kind of spotlight is the WBC, yet arguably America’s three best players-NL MVP and Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, NL MVP Bryce Harper, reigning AL MVP Mike Trout-are not playing in the tournament. They never have.
The tension of an international tournament without national stars exposes baseball’s true vulnerability, regardless of how much money is rolling in. The game thinks it can be hipper, faster, sexier without marketing hip, fast, sexy players, evidenced in spring training when MLB’s Twitter account spent several posts trumpeting the arrival of low minor leaguer Tim Tebow, who has no chance of making the majors.
The WBC has been around since 2006, and in the three previous tournaments, the United States has never finished higher than fourth, while the international teams play like it’s October. The WBC is the closest thing to a global presence baseball has, but privately, unwilling to cross the commissioner, people in the game are ambivalent about it. Teams fear their best players could be injured right before the season, and athletes are caught between being responsible to the teams that pay their salaries and representing their country in a tournament that needs them to make it bigger and more important than it currently is.
The Team USA WBC roster is full of excellent players, including $325 million man Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey of the Giants. Baseball and the players’ association say they are thrilled with the makeup of the team and respect the choices of the players not playing. “Of course it would be great if Team USA found its way to the end. We haven’t yet seen that in this format,” says MLB’s chief baseball officer, Joe Torre. “But this is a very cool event, and when you have the enthusiasm that the Latin American countries bring, especially, I think everyone is satisfied with the energy level for the game.”
Yet that energy level wasn’t enough to persuade the game’s best player to participate. Trout hasn’t finished lower than second in the MVP balloting in any of his five full seasons, but there’s a difference between being an All-Star and being a legend. The legends are visible, inseparable from their sport, their era and their times. The WBC lacks the prestige of the Olympics, obviously, but imagine Jordan or James never playing on the Dream Team. For all his Hall of Fame talent, Trout doesn’t seem to want that responsibility.
This indifference to carrying the franchise of baseball is really why the game feels like it’s falling behind. Harper and Trout could command $400 million in their next contracts, money that isn’t just for hitting the ball out of the park. It’s also for selling the sport to the world; it means representing the game internationally. If Manning could do that for the NFL from Indianapolis and Denver, imagine what Trout and Kershaw could do from LA. Harper talks about making baseball fun again and seems to want that big stage, boom and bust, as Reggie once did. Maybe there’s no better place to do that than in New York. For now, those players have missed an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of last year’s epic World Series.
If baseball doesn’t want to be swept into oblivion, its biggest stars need to be where the lights are brightest. Forget the rule changes. MLB has stars, but what it really needs is star power.