MLB needs more USA vs. the world
Lately, the sports calendar has had a distinctly international flavor. The Euro 2012 soccer tournament received significant attention in the United States. British tennis star Andy Murray captured the world's attention with his run to the Wimbledon final. The opening ceremonies of the London Games are two weeks away.
In the midst of those global events, Major League Baseball hosted its All-Star Game this week in Kansas City, Mo., a quintessentially American locale. Players from a broad range of nationalities converged on Kauffman Stadium for what became an 8-0 rout for the National League.
The NL has won three consecutive All-Star Games, not to mention the last two World Series, so some may argue that the Senior Circuit is re-establishing the dominance it enjoyed during the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not buying it. The American League had the edge in interleague play this year, as it has in each of the last nine seasons.
It’s hard for any All-Star Game to state a definitive case about the competitiveness of the leagues. Besides, players change teams so frequently that league identity and bragging rights are phenomena of the past.
As soccer has taught us, the most passionate debates involve which countries have the superior teams. Baseball should seize upon that fervor by adding an international component to its All-Star Game — and the sooner, the better. A “USA vs. the World” theme would be fascinating, either as a second game in addition to the current AL/NL All-Star Game or as a one-year change-up. (Remember, the All-Star break is now four days, so there is time for two games.)
Traditionalists may consider that sacrilegious, but think about this: During the Olympics, many of us will watch sports we don’t understand, and athletes we barely know, for the simple reason that they have “USA” stitched across their Speedos or spandex. As Americans, we seek confirmation of our competitive preeminence — athletic or otherwise. When it comes to our national pastime, wouldn’t we relish the chance to prove that we are the best?
Yes, the World Baseball Classic was (and is) supposed to afford us that opportunity. But the third installment of the Classic is scheduled for next spring — with the championship round likely to be held in California — and Team USA is still looking for its first berth in the finals. (Japan won the first two tournaments.)
A common rationalization is that many of the best Americans haven’t participated. That wouldn’t be an issue in the All-Star Game setting, where attendance is mandated except in cases of injuries or special waivers from the commissioner’s office. The argument that Team USA wasn’t in midseason baseball shape for the WBC, relative to the Asian and Latin American clubs, would be rendered irrelevant, too. No more excuses.
The WBC holds great promise and should see an uptick in popularity next year. But MLB owes it to the sport’s future to encourage best-vs.-best international competitions as often as possible. Now that baseball is gone from the Olympics — at least for now — one WBC every four years doesn’t feel sufficient for a sport with such a broad (and growing) international profile.
Soccer has perpetual international competition; ice hockey has an annual world championship. Even basketball, between the Olympics and world championships, has a major international competition every two years. In some form, baseball needs more frequent international play. The problem is that the sport’s schedule includes so few natural pauses for such a tournament to take place. A Team USA vs. Team World matchup in an All-Star setting may not be a perfect solution, but it would intensify the discussion about where international baseball should go from here.
Besides, the presence of Team USA would attract casual fans intrigued by the chance to root for their country, rather than the league their favorite team happens to represent. While football has become America’s most popular sport, it couldn’t bring us a game of this sort with deep national subtext. Baseball can — and needs to embrace the possibility.
For now, the All-Star Game determines home-field advantage for the World Series. But it has remained, at its core, a summer entertainment showcase. That was more apparent than ever Tuesday, when American League starter Justin Verlander freely acknowledged after a five-run first inning that he was pitching to delight the fans, not necessarily win the game.
I can promise you this: If Verlander had been wearing the Stars and Stripes on his sleeve, he would have approached the first inning much differently.
Look at it this way: Home-field advantage is ultimately significant to one team. National pride should matter to us all — even in these divided times.
Consider, for a moment, what the starting lineups might have been if Tuesday’s game had been Team USA vs. Team World — a format baseball already uses for its Futures Game:
USA: Verlander or Matt Cain pitching, Joe Mauer catching, Prince Fielder at first, Ian Kinsler at second, Derek Jeter at shortstop, David Wright at third, Josh Hamilton in left, Curtis Granderson in center, Mike Trout in right, Ryan Braun at designated hitter.
World: Yu Darvish pitching, Carlos Ruiz catching, Joey Votto at first, Robinson Cano at second, Elvis Andrus at shortstop, Miguel Cabrera at third, Carlos Gonzalez in left, Melky Cabrera in center, Jose Bautista in right, David Ortiz at designated hitter.
That is a game I’d like to see.