by Matt Nocerino, special to GothamBaseball
As evident every coming fall when the NFL season kicks off, there is a growing disparity between how popular the product is on the gridiron, compared to that of the diamond. Problems within baseball itself exist, which has left those tasked with promoting our national pastime with noticeable obstacles.
Despite such challenges, however, Major League Baseball has long had the potential to ascend with its still ever-growing crop of foreign-born stars. Sadly, MLB has long toiled with the predicament of how to showcase its non-native superstars to an American audience. The hurdle of relating with players who spoke English as a second language created barriers that despite the league’s best efforts, were always present due to how those great players were brought here. It seemed they always had to relate back to American culture despite many having incredible stories of, and connections to, culture in countries all over the rest of the globe.
This may have led to a disconnect between fans and the titans of the game they love, simply because they might not have known that much about them. The Hall of Fame careers of Ichiro, Ádrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez are over. Those of Albert Pujols, Nelson Cruz, Yadier Molina, and Miguel Cabrera are next. These elder statesmen of the game, along with many others, are on their way out.
Pujols is a top two first baseman ever, yet some younger fans wouldn’t recognize the sound of his voice. MLB can’t let the stories of this next generation be swept aside in a likewise manner. Shohei Ohtani is doing things that haven’t been seen on a major league level since Babe Ruth himself. He should get the push the league should have given to Ichiro. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. shows a natural poise and the tools for being an all around offensive machine. He should receive the attention MLB should have given Albert and Miggy. Ronald Acuña Jr. might be the most talented, all around, true five-tool player in the world, and Juan Soto has the tools and plate discipline to put up such staggering numbers at such a young age that the only comparison to him is Ted Williams. They should be shown the love that should have been shown to Vladdy’s father.
The new problem at hand is that MLB can’t showcase every single one of these stars to the extent each deserves. As such, it may be necessary to change the approach. Subsequently, the optimal value may not lie in the individual players, but their collective teams. Evidently, these stars don’t come alone, they bring friends. Tatis Jr. has Manny Machado, Acuña Jr. has Ozzie Albies, Guerrero Jr. has Teoscar Hernandez. So many teams have a tandem of foreign talent headlining the roster; Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers up in Boston, Correa and Altuve in Houston, the White Sox have José Abreu and Yoan Móncada, etc.
The growing trend in the game has been that some teams are crafting international identities through the presence of their best players. Earlier this season, the Blue Jays donned a suit jacket with “La Gente del Barrio” embroidered to its back, along with the names of various countries its players come from, celebrating their diversity. The most recent example being the New York Mets, trading for Javier Báez at the deadline, so he could join a roster that already features Francisco Lindor, Edwin Diaz, Carlos Carrasco, and Jonathan Villar, while being managed by Luis Rojas. Numerous other teams have been carried by their international stars as the heart and soul of the club. The Braves rode all the way to one win shy of the World Series last year, and despite employing the NL MVP at first base, all anyone wanted to talk about were Acuña Jr. and Albies.
Being that the international presence of baseball is such a strength, you can expect to see the Mets, for the aforementioned reasons, at the forefront of the movement. Alongside them, you’ll see the Yankees, who have quietly assembled the backbone of the team with international talent. The Yanks boast the likes of Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, and Rougned Odor around the infield, and have constructed a good portion of their pitching staff with Aroldis Chapman, Nestor Cortes Jr., Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luis Gil. All these players have been crucial to the Bombers’ success thus far, combining for 11.2 bWAR. As such, the two NY teams are finding a way to connect to the rich and strong Spanish-speaking culture of their city.
And there are opportunities for more. Imagine Lindor hitting a monster jack, and pointing to Bad Bunny sitting beside the Mets’ dugout, or someday seeing Anuel AA throwing the first pitch out to Jasson Dominguez. Promoting teams with ties to a multilingual audience is a clear next step for MLB. Likewise, it may be time for both teams in this city to go all in for communities that have long shown immense passion for the game many Americans have left behind.