On Tuesday evening, Major League Baseball hosted its 88th All-Star Game at Marlins Park in Miami, FL. The American League managed a 2-1 victory over the National League in an extended contest that was decided by a home run from Robinson Cano in the tenth inning. The All-Star Game has been an important affair, but it may be time for baseball to alter its Midsummer Classic and take advantage of a unique time in the sports and entertainment calendar. This past spring, writers Buster Olney and Jayson Stark suggested a new way to bring excitement into the summer: by shifting its quad-annual World Baseball Classic to July, MLB can take over an increasingly unimportant week in the summer and create an event with passion and substance.
This interesting concept was fleshed out as Olney and then-fellow ESPN writer Jayson Stark kicked around the idea on the March 21, 2017 episode of the Baseball Tonight podcast. Both discussed the potential of the World Baseball Classic and its opportunity to be successful if it were switched to the All-Star Break. Olney proposed an alternate schedule where both events could take place in the same week. Stark nailed the essence of this possible competition by calling it a “festival of baseball.” These ideas have the power to not only elevate the WBC, but also can transform a week in July that has become more mundane. But instead of altering the All-Star Break schedule, why not replace it?
When it first came into being in 1933, the All-Star Game was the best opportunity for baseball to showcase its stars. Even during a more limited television era, this game was the surest opportunity for fans to watch legends who competed in the opposing league. With the advent of cable television and interleague play, the All-Star Game is still enjoyable, but lacks its previous must-see atmosphere. Ted Williams ranked his 1941 walk-off home run as one of the definitive moments of his career. Robinson Cano’s shot is more likely to be known as a nice play on SportsCenter. The most recent idea to rejuvenate the importance of the game, where the winning league gains homefield advantage in the World Series, was an insult to the idea of a fun exhibition.
Baseball has always had a unique advantage over its rival sports leagues. The remaining three primary American sports associations (the NHL, NFL, and NBA) compete with each other for ratings throughout their seasons. During the summer, baseball has the American sports world to itself after the NBA Finals conclude. The MLB All-Star Break is an even more singular time in sports: two days when only the Home Run Derby or All-Star Game are on television and two days when no collegiate or major professional games are broadcast.
Now imagine if baseball could replace the enjoyable, yet tired All-Star Break with a unique event: The World Baseball Classic.
Founded in 2005, the World Baseball Classic has witnessed mixed enthusiasm. Largely an attempt to create something out of nothing following the Olympic Committee’s decision to remove baseball from the Summer Olympics, the WBC has taken place during spring training. As baseball is just beginning to come out of hibernation it also competes with the NBA, the NHL, and college basketball’s March Madness. Despite the allure of pitchers and catchers playing catch in warmer weather, the American sports psyche really is not totally tuned into baseball until Opening Day. Even if it occurs just every four years, MLB can take an event that has been devoid of any real impact, replace the most lifeless week in sports, and create a regular series with meaning and bona fide competition. This switch could easily overtake the vanilla nature of the All-Star Game and help to change the conversation about baseball in a way that can grow the game internationally and domestically.
The 2017 WBC was by far the most eventful in the series’ history. The American roster displayed a little more élan than usual and no team flashed better highlights than Puerto Rico. As has been the case in the past, the Dominican Republic lineup displays almost as much star talent as the American or National League All-Star squads. Teams like Japan and Cuba typically display great effort as well. Fans can watch as their players play the game with a renewed enthusiasm. In some instances, the emotion displayed in the most recent series outshines a large part of the regular season.
One major concern about a mid-season WBC is the opportunity for injuries outside of MLB competition, particularly with pitchers. There is no way to know for sure, but MLB players may be less likely to injure themselves as they are already in mid-season form instead of in March when they are just stretching out.
There is precedent for this idea. The National Hockey League has suspended its all-star contest for a different competition for the greater benefit of its sport. The 1979 and 1987 All-Star Games were passed on so that the league’s stars could battle its Soviet counterparts. The 2006, 2010, and 2014 All-Star Games were canceled so that hockey’s biggest stars could participate in the Winter Olympics. In each instance, it is probably more likely that hockey fans remember the outcome of the Olympic competition or the Russian matches instead of the winner of the Metropolitan, Central, Atlantic, or Pacific teams. Next year’s All-Star game will be held despite the 2018 Winter Olympics. For a ratings-challenged sport, it will be interesting to see the difference in television audience that the NHL attracts against its international competition.
MLB has more of a vested interest in passing on their all-star festivities than the NHL. Unlike hockey, MLB is directly promoting its own product. If the World Baseball Classic is already occurring, why not move the event to a time that would provide a greater benefit to baseball and add life to the summer sports calendar? Think of how great a moment like Javier Baez’s no-look tag or Yadier Molina’s gunslinging throw looked. Now imagine how much greater those moments would be if they were the only meaningful pro sports contests on television. The All-Star game is enjoyable, but this week in sports can be better. If it took place at the right time, the WBC could live up to its name and finally be a classic event.