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How to improve the All-Star Game and the World Baseball Classic at the same time

Major League Baseball needs to decide what it wants its international tournament to be

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2022 World Baseball Classic Qualifier Game Four: Argentina v. Panama Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On February 17, Clayton Kershaw bowed out of the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Kershaw was understandably and unsurprisingly disappointed.

As to why Kershaw could not pitch in the WBC, the reason was far more innocuous than one might initially think. Kershaw is perfectly healthy for a 34-year-old that is pitching in his sixteenth season as a Major Leaguer. The Dodgers had no objection to Kershaw’s participation in the tournament.

The widely reported reason that Kershaw could not pitch because he could not obtain insurance coverage. Per the Los Angeles Times, Kershaw could not finalize the required insurance coverage needed to participate in the event, with his history of back injuries the primary culprit. Kershaw even tried to obtain his own coverage for the tournament to no avail.

“I really wanted to do it, I really wanted to be part of the group,” Kershaw said. “Probably my last chance to get to do it.”

As it happens, Kershaw has some excellent company in this matter. The Los Angeles Times had an excellent primer on the subject, which I will briefly summarize.

The plight of the uninsurable

Kershaw, Nathan Eovaldi, and Miguel Cabrera were all reportedly uninsurable for the WBC due to their injury histories. Players who want to participate either fall into the insurable or not insurable categories. Oddly enough, Cabrera is still participating in the WBC, but we will get to why in a moment.

The insurance requirement exists because, unlike other leagues, the salaries on Major League contracts are guaranteed. So if someone were unlikely and unlucky enough to be injured, the insurance requirement would cover the cost of the contract.

So why is Cabrera playing and Kershaw not? Because the Tigers waived the insurance requirement and assumed the financial risk of playing Cabrera should he be injured in the WBC. The Dodgers did not assume that risk for Kershaw.

In the abstract, the Tigers’ decision makes sense because barring something extraordinarily unlikely, that team will not be remotely competitive in 2023. Moreover, Cabrera is expected to retire after the upcoming season. Kershaw has previously stated he will pitch on a year-to-year basis until he decides to retire and become a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after retirement.

For contrast, let us compare the following two hypotheticals:

  • Clayton Kershaw is not going to pitch in the 2023 WBC
  • Clayton Kershaw is not going to pitch during the 2023 regular season

Admit it; one of those statements made you feel bad and one of those statements made you visibly cringe. And if we are all being honest with each other, I can likely pick which statement is which.

I genuinely feel bad for Kershaw, because competing on an international level is probably the one achievement that is missing from his sterling career is a gold medal from international competition. But Kershaw’s absence from the WBC did make me think of a song and a line of thought that baseball as a whole needs to ask.

“[Is the WBC] what you want [it] to be?”

Like a deep-cut from Foster the People, I kept coming back to the question of whether the WBC was what it wanted to be. Let’s face it, having a major quadrennial international tournament end about a week before the start of competition in the undisputed best league for access and competition in the world seems like a terribly dumb idea.

That sentence is a mouthful, but let’s face it, what does Baseball (by which I mean the powers that be) want the WBC to be? As of right now, if you asked the average American baseball fan, they would likely say that the tournament is a glorified exhibition. That description is not meant as a slight.

That argument is further supported by recent reporting from Ken Rosenthal who reported what Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the only returnees from the 2017 championship squad, said prior to Team USA’s first workout (paywalled):

“I just honestly shared what [2017 teammate Adam Jones] shared [before the WBC],” Goldschmidt said. “This isn’t a vacation from spring training. If we want to win, you’ve got to take it seriously. All these teams do.”

“The team we were on in ‘17 did that. That was kind of what Jonesy said: If you want to win this, you’ve got to play like it’s a playoff game. It’s not like the All-Star Game, where it’s kind of an exhibition.”

(emphasis added.)

If you were to ask whether the WBC or the major league season was more important, I would imagine you would have to go through quite a lot of people before you found someone who honestly answered that the WBC was more important to them than the regular season.

It is not as if people in Baseball are not trying to make the WBC more important to fans of baseball. While the WBC is more popular overseas and in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, that same level of interest has not carried over to the United States as a whole. I would be remiss if I did not point out that the WBC trophy is pretty neat.

The WBC is not the World Cup (of soccer/futbol), and even if it were, the World Cup creates less passion in Americans than say the Super Bowl or March Madness. It is generally rare for me to agree with Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez, but he’s right: if players like Kershaw can be left on the shelf, it is hard to view the WBC as anything more beyond a glorified exhibition.

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have made a concerted effort to attract high-profile players to participate and top-end players like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Kershaw made public commitments to play. While I acknowledge that effort, I freely admit that the WBC is going on in the background of my baseball life and I will likely not pay much attention to it.

Admittedly, I am the type of fan that Major League Baseball would want to devote time and energy (and money) to as I usually have plenty of discretionary income to spend on baseball. So I asked myself honestly, what would make me care about the World Baseball Classic?

What Baseball could (but likely) will not do

Clayton Kershaw being literally perfect. Target Field. April 13, 2022.
Michael Elizondo/TrueBlueLA

If a player of Clayton Kershaw’s caliber wants to play, Baseball should move heaven and earth to let him play. It really is that simple.

We are not talking about a fringe player on a roster — we are talking about a first-ballot Hall of Famer, who is frankly lowering himself to deign the WBC with his presence for the tournament. Faint hearts quail! Kershaw would likely be embarrassed at the profundity of my annoyance at his exclusion. And a player like Kershaw is only playing for national pride in a career that needs no further accolade.

If Baseball wants its top-end talent to participate, it should come to an agreement with the Players Association to create a fund to underwrite its own insurance policy for any top-end player.

I am completely mindful that this step (while making complete sense) will absolutely never, ever happen.

Currently, I am in the middle of writing a long-form essay castigating the cheapest teams in baseball for having payrolls when combined do not equal the Mets, Padres, or Dodgers. I would have to be willfully naive to expect the skinflints masquerading as (some of the) owners to bankroll a player that they do not control.

The concept of “good of the game” might as well be in an alien language to some of these people.

But if we are already engaging in hypotheticals that have no chance of occurring, there is something worth discussing that I have been meaning to write about, which is relevant to our current discussion.

Two birds, one stone: how to fix improve the All-Star Game and the WBC

I have had the opportunity to go to the last two All-Star Games in Denver (2021) and Los Angeles (2022). Both times I had the exact same indifferent reaction due to cost and the fact that the All-Star Game has lost quite a bit of its mystique with the advent and expansion of interleague play.

That familiarity is the trade-off for the upcoming more balanced schedule. While discussion of realignment and expansion will rightly wait for another day, it’s generally a very good thing that the game’s biggest stars will play in every stadium every two years instead of every six years now.

92nd MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Moreover, I am not arguing for a return of adding stakes to the All-Star Game by making home-field advantage in the World Series be dependent on the outcome of an exhibition game as that idea was truly a terrible one, which needs no resurrection. But if there were a way to improve the All-Star Game AND the WBC at the same time...

The Ground Rules

In this thought experiment, the WBC’s tournament format remains the same, a round-robin, double-elimination tournament winnowing into an eight-team quarterfinal.

No professional players in the preliminary round-robin tournament, as defined as any player being active on a 40-man roster at the start of the current Major League season. There is likely not a perfect solution to “find a way to let someone like Kershaw play problem” without getting creative about it.

I think I have found a way, but it will require one additional change: the round-robin tournament would start in June and would take (mostly) place outside of the United States.

The final change that this thought experiment would entertain is changing the WBC from a quadrennial tournament to a biennial tournament.

The Justifications

For starters, if the WBC is more popular internationally, it makes sense to have the preliminaries where there is the most interest. If one were to insist on having locations within the United States for round-robin play, it would be a great opportunity for cities currently without Major League Baseball (Portland, Nashville, Las Vegas (as of this essay), and Charlotte jump to mind) that could show off existing infrastructure as proof of viability.

Also, if you can anticipate the thread of logic I am using, active players in the league cannot (and probably should not) be used during the regular season for a lengthy tournament. Major soccer leagues would not dare be scheduled at the same time as the World Cup. The National Hockey League suspended play to allow players to participate in the Olympic Tournament but famously did not suspend play during the 2022 Olympics. But if we can emulate a format where players are available for a game (or two) we might be able to split the difference, while having the highest caliber of competition.

Now I stated no professionals during the preliminaries, but that prohibition would be removed once pool play ended, which would coincide with the current All-Star Break, with the semifinals and finals being held in the place of the All-Star Game.

Players of eligible nationalities (under the same rules as now) would give commitments to play as they do now. If one insisted on having the fans vote on the participants based on the commitments, that act might work, but there would likely not be enough time to pull that off, under this unlikely scenario. In my head, the same usage rules would apply (no overusing players in the tournament with ill effects for the second half of the season).

Just think of it: all of the mystique that the All-Star Game used to have, but focused on the finale of an international tournament. As the finales of the WBC have thus far been played in Major League ballparks, centering the finale in lieu of the midsummer classic every other year seems like a no-brainer to me. The sport is evolving — into what I do not know.

All I know is that the national pastime is a sport with regional appeal in various parts of the world. This appeal should be encouraged, which can only help the sport.

There are a million other variables that this essay does not have time to delve into in depth. And if you like the current WBC format, more power to you; please enjoy it to your heart’s content.

Again, this thought experiment almost certainly goes nowhere. Baseball clings to its traditions like no other sport, and would likely never entertain a format change to the current All-Star break.

Would you watch a WBC final that took place during the All-Star break in lieu of the All-Star Game? I would. And these are the thoughts that arose when I asked myself what it would take to follow the WBC as closely as I follow the Dodgers.