As Americans watch the Parade of Nations at the beginning of an Olympics, we are at our most patriotic. Here in the States, we like to think we do a lot of things well. Sports are high on the list.
Meanwhile, a new baseball season is beginning. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitchers and catchers opened camp Friday, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and 28 more clubs soon to follow. Even as football has become our national sports obsession, we stubbornly regard baseball as our national pastime.
Here is the reality: Increasingly, baseball’s growth is happening outside our borders. Many of the game’s most intriguing stars — Miguel Cabrera, Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, now Masahiro Tanaka — are foreign-born. The level of worldwide talent has reached a critical mass, such that more frequent international competition can continue the game’s global growth, renew U.S. pride in our sport, and, yes, make money for all involved.
America has the most players in Major League Baseball — more than 70 percent, as of Opening Day last year. But does it have the best? That is a separate question, and one worth answering.
Is the World Baseball Classic, on its own, a comprehensive measure of global baseball competitiveness? No. It is a snapshot tournament held every four years, and not all of the best American, Venezuelan, Japanese and South Korean players turn out.
But enough of the best players participate. (Team USA had plenty of cachet last March, with David Wright, Brandon Phillips, Adam Jones, Joe Mauer, Craig Kimbrel & Co.) The WBC has been staged three times. We can draw some conclusions from what has transpired. Specifically, with a 10-10 overall record and zero WBC titles, the notion of American exceptionalism in baseball is in doubt.
Wouldn’t you enjoy watching Team USA try to prove otherwise?
On baseball’s existing calendar, we’ll have to wait until the 2017 WBC for the next best-versus-best tournament. (Important note: The collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2016. Favorable labor relations between MLB and the MLB Players Association, which have grown contentious at times this offseason, are a prerequisite for the WBC’s continued health.) There’s still a chance baseball could return to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but, even if that happens, the competition is unlikely to feature MLB stars.
In the meantime, then, baseball can make two tweaks to stimulate interest in international competition here and abroad:
1. Organize an international showdown between U.S. and Japanese stars, to be played in November.
Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. MLB has sent players to Asia for post-World Series exhibitions several times in the past decade. They wear MLB team jerseys. Big-name players have been involved. (Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson went on the most recent tour, a series against the Taiwanese national team in fall 2011.) In fact, discussions are ongoing about the possibility of a similar MLB All-Star trip to Asia in November of this year.
My suggestion: Rather than pick from all major leaguers, use a version of Team USA for the possible 2014 trip. Would all the best players go? No. But MLB and USA Baseball could collaborate to choose high-priority young players they’d like to consider for the 2017 WBC. Stars would be more likely to say "yes" in 2017 if they have a positive experience representing their country in an earlier series. And the more often American major leaguers play together internationally, the better they are likely to perform in the WBC. (USA Basketball has had success with this concept, using the FIBA World Cup to set up the Olympic roster.)
If organizers wanted to get creative, they could stage a transoceanic showdown, with the series split between stadiums in California and Japan. Based on crowds and viewership in Japan for the WBC, we know the series would generate huge revenues there. That’s a nice hedge against the uncertain receptiveness of American fans in the middle of football season.
2. Add an "international friendly" to All-Star week.
In many ways, the All-Star Game is baseball’s best marketing tool. The other major North American pro sports aren’t in season when the Midsummer Classic takes place each July. Baseball can dominate the sports landscape on television and social media. But that stops on Tuesday of All-Star week, when the game is over. There are no baseball events Wednesday or Thursday, before the MLB schedule resumes Friday.
What if MLB borrowed a page from soccer and hosted an international friendly on Wednesday, involving the U.S. and another country? A matchup between Team USA and Team Dominican Republic — the reigning WBC champion — would be a natural place to start. Some veteran All-Stars may opt out of staying for the Wednesday game, but Team USA should be able to put together a roster with WBC-level talent — and maybe even better.
Television is a key consideration. Again: During that week, there’s very little happening on the American sports calendar other than the All-Star Game. The television rights, sponsorships and associated revenues from a major live event should justify the work required to plan it. The baseball world is already in one place for several days. Why not stay an extra night, with some national bragging rights at stake to hold the public interest?
As it stands now, American fans don’t see professionals wearing "Team USA" baseball jerseys often enough. The more that happens, the stronger the sport will be — economically and emotionally. Meanwhile, the allure of beating the Americans will captivate interest among the passionate fan bases in other nations. As the Sochi Games will remind us over the next two weeks, few things sell like patriotism and sports.
Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.