The 2019 MLB season featured a strong back-and-forth battle for the National League MVP between Los Angeles Dodgers first outfielder Cody Bellinger and his Milwaukee Brewers counterpart Christian Yelich. And while an injury ultimately derailed the final month of that war, it presented Major League Baseball with exactly what they need to regain the world’s attention when play resumes following the Coronavirus shut-down.
Baseball has a unique history of being the glue that holds us together when times become tough. From being a constant during wars to being a defining flagbearer after the United States was shaken by a terrorist attack, baseball has helped us forge forward. It has served as a return to normal life, where things were as simple as balls and strikes.
The Coronavirus pandemic has forced the world into unknown territory, and like everything else around the globe, Major League Baseball has been swept up in the rising tide. With the ongoing delay of the MLB season, baseball needs something to help pull it up by the stirrups and get fans back on board.
They need a repeat of the summer of 1998 to repeat in 2020.
In that summer, we saw the greatest home run race of all-time, with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey, Jr., and more take their shots at the single-season home run record. And then once that was surpassed, it became a battle to see who would be the king of the hill. Fans, who were still bitter about the 1994 player strike, returned in droves and the battle ushered in a second-coming of baseball popularity.
No, I am not advocating for a return to the juiced-up, steroid-driven home run days of yore. Rather I am saying we need an injection of that kind of excitement, where fans of all teams (and even some outside of baseball) were invested in a marketed battle of superstars. MLB has somehow lost the ability to market their top players, but they have a unique opportunity to do so in 2020.
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We got a taste of a similar battle for supremacy last season when Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich battled it out for the National League MVP award into the late summer. We even saw some late charges by other young stars in Ronald Acuna and Pete Alonso, and the emergence of Juan Soto. But a freak injury to Yelich (broken kneecap) put an end to the 2019 race in September, costing him the rest of the season and a sprint to the finish line against Bellinger.
At the end of the day, Cody Bellinger would capture the 2019 NL MVP on the heels of a .305/.406/.629 season with 47 home runs, 115 RBI, and 7.8 fWAR. Yelich meanwhile finished his season with just 130 games to his name, but hit .329/.429/.671 with 44 HR and 97 RBI, tying Bellinger with an NL-leading 7.8 fWAR.
With Bellinger entering his age-24 season, Yelich in his prime at 28, and other young stars like Acuna (22), Soto (21), and Alonso (25) with a lot left in the tank, the National League MVP race has the chance to be a tough fight for years to come. This is the opportunity for MLB to really lean on its young stars and begin a campaign that not only reinvigorates the game with a younger audience but also to inspire a world that at times feels on the brink. If they provide this with the same build-up and create the fascination that they did with the 1998 home run race, the fans will return in droves and the world will have that distraction it badly needs right now.
If and when the season resumes, Major League Baseball has a unique opportunity to jump back to the forefront. The recipe is simple; market your young stars and give the world something to root for.
Hopefully, they don’t blow the save.