The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB’s dazzling future has arrived, if the sport can stay out of the way

Some of the National League all-stars pose before their 3-2 win over the American League. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
6 min

SEATTLE — The 2023 MLB All-Star Game, though full of teething baseball brilliance, was not some Kiddie Classic. The emergence of all this youth — first-timers as well as entrenched standouts still on the flattering side of age 25 — indicates the rapid development of rare talent, not a deficiency of quality veterans.

In the long history of a sport that tortures participants with its difficulty, never has stardom been so accessible to so many young players so soon. Baseball has the grayest hair of any popular sport, and it acts even older when it thrashes joy with rigidity and yields to change only in desperation. But the current movement provides an organic opportunity for the game to go with the players’ flow and repackage the product.

How long has baseball quietly wanted to be cool again, all while alienating the personalities and shunning the charisma that could make it more appealing? Now MLB needs only to stay out of the way and direct attention to the star power.

“Baseball is in a better place than it used to be,” Boston Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen said.

Yet the casual sports fan still perceives it as an outdated national pastime that looks more like a niche sport when measured against the mighty NFL. Shohei Ohtani is the transcendent figure, and to become a household name, he had to achieve historic duality as a hitter and pitcher. Still, he should be more popular. Every other star is just baseball-famous.

It shouldn’t be that way when Cincinnati Reds rookie Elly De La Cruz, who wasn’t an all-star because he was called up to the majors only about a month ago, is creating viral moments multiple times a week. It shouldn’t be that way when Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., the best player not named Ohtani, is already a four-time all-star at 25. It shouldn’t be that way when 22-year-old Julio Rodríguez is flashing that camera-ready smile and hitting a record 41 homers in 59 swings during the opening round of the Home Run Derby.

The game is blessed with power pitchers hitting triple digits on the radar gun and throwing stuff that does ballerina moves to befuddled batters. Yet there’s space for Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Corbin Carroll, Wander Franco, Adley Rutschman and many others to explode onto the scene as precocious difference-makers. More are on the way, too.

There’s an intrinsic swagger to their bubbling greatness. It doesn’t matter whether these players say interesting things to the media or speak English fluently. Their games are loud; their flair is magnetic. But they play a sport with a visibility problem and no clue how to market flavor.

“When I first came in, there’d be like one rookie on a team,” Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Now, in today’s game, there are three or four, and they’re, like, superstars. When I first came in, I was just trying to keep my head above water. These guys are just hitting home runs. It’s amazing that they come in and are able to have success. To me, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It took me two years to figure it out.

“But I think that’s the biggest change: Teams are letting their young players get to the big leagues faster. I think that’s what’s cool. It’s cool for the game because there are so many kids that love it. Having a 20-, 21-year-old with great success, that’s a great example for young kids.”

In 2012, a 19-year-old Bryce Harper became the youngest position player in the All-Star Game. At 20, Mike Trout was also an all-star newbie that year. While it’s still not common to see a pair so young — and destined to dominate the next decade — there has been an abundance of players a year or two older flooding this game.

Corbin Carroll, a precocious Seattle kid, comes home an all-star

On the initial 2023 all-star teams, before injury replacements boosted the numbers, there were 26 first-time all-stars selected. Nineteen of the original all-stars were 26 or younger. Instead of blocking players from rising quickly to the majors, MLB and the players union agreed to new measures before the 2022 season to incentivize player promotion and mitigate the old practice of service-time manipulation. The era of the young star had already begun, but now there are fewer roadblocks.

But can baseball promote the vibrancy?

It’s more critical than ever. Commissioner Rob Manfred and leaders throughout the sport used to dismiss the perception of baseball’s decline, touting its local and regional relevance instead of worrying about consistently captivating a national audience. With a business model that included lucrative regional sports networks, the sport had no concerns about its financial stability. But the collapse of several RSNs could devastate some baseball markets.

A philosophical overhaul is in order. So it’s an ideal time for alluring stars with long careers ahead to come along. Then again, you can trace this trend back to Trout and Harper, and the sport has failed to amplify the best players of their generation. Now the call is stronger and more urgent: Celebrate the game and the individuals who can elevate it.

This is an opportunity baseball would be foolish to squander. For once, the athleticism of these players stacks up to football and basketball. There are unicorns roaming the field: shortstops who look like basketball players; outfielders not named Aaron Judge who look like tight ends; athletes who play with flash and intelligence.

If baseball tweaked rules to speed up the game, it can embrace personality and swagger. It can sell those things rather than tolerate them. It will always be a meandering, pensive sport. But extraordinary things can happen at any moment.

Baseball has to make people stay attentive, and a huge part of that is portraying great players as appointment viewing. You never know when De La Cruz will do something delightful, so people have to be on notice. And when he does thrill, the excitement of those moments must be maximized.

Tuesday’s game began with defensive magnificence. American League right fielder Adolis García made a leaping catch to rob Acuña of an extra-base hit. Then, in left field, Randy Arozarena did the same to Freeman. As Freeman motioned toward Arozarena to applaud him and express disbelief, Arozarena struck his signature pose, folding his arms across his body and lifting his chin. It’s basically an old-school B-boy stance, but as a 28-year-old who fled Cuba for Mexico eight years ago before baseball brought him to the United States, Arozarena gives that relic of hip-hop culture a fresh vibe.

For as long as he was present for the all-star festivities, Arozarena posed. It never gets old because it always follows a big play at a big moment. He’s not showing off. He’s showing up.

As the young studs continue to take over, perhaps baseball will recognize the difference.