June 21, 2024

No priorities might be more important for Major League Baseball than marketing its players and growing the game internationally.

The league has just been handed a golden ticket to do both. The league is about to crumple it up and throw it out.

The Olympic Games are coming to Los Angeles in 2028. If major league players do not participate in the baseball competition, then a league that has dispatched its players to London in the middle of a season but refuses to send them to L.A. in the middle of a season will be exposed: We care about a spectacle that can promote our sport, but only if we run the event and control the revenue.

The World Baseball Classic fits that bill, created by the league as an alternative to the Olympics. The WBC is a terrific event, but it is held at a time when America is paying attention to March Madness. In July 2028, if MLB would just take a brief Olympic break, America and the rest of the world would be paying attention to the Olympic baseball tournament.

“I think everyone appreciates the challenges associated with major leaguers playing in a tournament that is in the middle of our season,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said before Game 1 of the World Series. “We’re an everyday game. We’re big on the integrity of that regular season. It’s an important thing for us.”

First things first: Baseball will not be part of next year’s Paris Olympics. Without support from Manfred and players’ union executive director Tony Clark, LA28 chairman Casey Wasserman might not have been able to get the International Olympic Committee to bring back baseball.

“Casey Wasserman has been supportive of getting baseball back in the Olympics, which we appreciate,” Manfred said. “We think it’s a great thing. We will continue to listen as to whether there is some arrangement that could be worked out — and I’m not saying one word about major league players — to make it the best possible tournament.”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred attends the Little League Classic in August.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred

(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

In past Olympic baseball tournaments, college and minor league players have filled the Team USA roster, largely because major league owners did not want to shut down the season so players could travel halfway around the world, to Seoul or Sydney or wherever. The owners would have lost two weeks of games, and all the money that would have gone with them.

In 2028, that would not be a problem. MLB could shut down for one week — and it would be the week of the All-Star Game, so only three games of the regular season would be impacted. The season could be extended by three days to accommodate those games, so owners would not lose any revenue. The All-Star Game could be sacrificed for one year.

The tournament could be played in six days. Eight nations would compete, split into two pools.

The first day would be a workout day. The next three days would be pool play, with 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. games at Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium. The fifth day would be a day off.

On the sixth day, the winners of each pool would play for the gold medal, preceded by the runners-up playing for the bronze medal.

Are three guaranteed games enough? That works for the World Cup, the most popular sporting event on the planet.

Clark played 15 years in the major leagues. He played in an All-Star Game, and in the postseason. He told me what he really wished he could have done: play for Team USA in the WBC.

“I look forward to talking to the guys more, with baseball being in the Olympics in 2028, to best appreciate where the masses are,” he said. “I know the vast majority of guys that are asked will tell you that, yeah, wearing USA on your chest is an honor and a privilege.”

Arizona's Corbin Carroll walks to the plate during the fifth inning of Game 1 of the World Series.

Arizona’s Corbin Carroll walks to the plate during the fifth inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers on Friday.

(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Corbin Carroll, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ transcendent rookie, could be a cornerstone of a 2028 Team USA roster. Carroll played for an 18-and-under national team in the Pan-Am Games.

“That is one of the most special baseball experiences that I’ve had, representing the country,” he told me. “If I had an opportunity to represent the country again, I would.

“There’s a different feeling when it’s the USA across the chest. That’s something I’d like to be a part of.”

Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies’ superstar, said he hopes MLB owners realize that the WBC is a fine event, but it is not a substitute for the Olympics.

“You talk about growing the game, and that’s the way you grow it at the highest peak,” Harper said during the National League Championship Series.

“I think it would be really cool. I think it would be a lot of fun. I don’t know if they’ll ever go for it, but I would love to put USA on my chest and represent it at the highest level. I know the WBC, everybody loves that, and it’s good for the game, but it’s not the Olympics.”

This should not be that hard.

Last year, the best players in MLB flew to L.A. in July for the All-Star Game. In 2028, the best players in MLB could fly to L.A. in July for the Olympics. No regular-season games would be lost.

“That is something that we have had some conversations about, with some folks who have suggested exactly that,” Clark said.

“I expect that dialogue to continue. I expect to sit down with the league and have dialogue in that regard, and see what it would look like. The devil would definitely be in the details.”

No doubt. MLB, LA28 and the IOC would have to decide who would insure player contracts in the event of injury, and how stadium revenue would be split among MLB, the Dodgers, the Angels and Olympic organizers. The latter is no small detail: SoFi Stadium is in jeopardy of not hosting 2026 World Cup games, in large part because of a revenue dispute between FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and stadium owner Stan Kroenke.

But there is opportunity too: Without the home run derby tied to the All-Star Game, take the derby to the Olympics. On the off day, celebrate a World Home Run Derby, with one player from each of the eight participating teams competing for his country, and for the title of baddest slugger on the planet.

L.A. does not need major leaguers at the 2028 Olympics. In 1984, we packed Dodger Stadium for Team USA, a college all-star team so deep that Will Clark played the outfield because Mark McGwire had locked down first base.

MLB needs major leaguers at the 2028 Olympics, where the eyes of the world will be on L.A. The world could marvel at Shohei Ohtani and Corbin Carroll and Bryce Harper, or MLB owners could sit on their wallets and profess to respect the sanctity of the schedule of the Kansas City Royals.

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