MLB’s All-Star Game can save Taiwan
Major League Baseball just missed a great opportunity to seed new markets, build its brand and address growing anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. Instead of moving its all-star game from Georgia to Colorado, it should have taken this summer’s game farther afield to a surprising new venue: Taiwan.
Major League Baseball (MLB) decided to skip previously scheduled Atlanta as this year’s All-Star host over what it considers to be Georgia’s assault on democracy and voting rights. The MLB should have gone one step further and moved the games overseas to help protect and defend global democracy. It’s too late for 2021, but it’s time to consider a future high viewership, mid-season game in Taiwan.
The move would focus Americans’ attention on, and raise awareness of, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)-threatened sovereign state. The All-Star Game would show non-military U.S. support for the embattled island nation. It also would reward a model COVID-response nation with a popular professional sporting event, the type that is having a hard time performing in COVID-challenged countries like the U.S. Finally, a show of solidarity with an Asian nation could help turn the tide on anti-Asian racial stereotyping and racism.
Taiwan, along with other major democratic Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, is a nation that fields professional baseball leagues. It already sends professional players to Major League Baseball teams on American and Canadian shores. Baseball is both a pastime and an obsession for many in the United States and Taiwan alike.
There are currently five Taiwanese players on U.S. MLB teams. There are also 11 former Taiwanese MLB players, mostly pitchers. Four of these players (Chin-Feng Chen (OF), Chin-Lung Hu (IF), Hung-Chih Kuo (P) and Chin-Hui Tsao (P)) have played for the reigning world champion, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Why not have these Taiwanese players now play host to our mid-season spectacle?
If the MLB had announced that this year’s All-Star Game was going to be held in Taiwan, it would have been a great opportunity for the entire Los Angeles Dodgers team to travel to Taiwan. While there, it could have celebrated its successful 2020 season and World Series victory with a nation in its thrall, perhaps even with a Taipei-sponsored downtown tickertape parade.
Professional sports were hampered by the novel coronavirus challenge in the U.S. in 2020. Taiwan could be a 2022 backup plan. Imagine the nation as a potential home for a 2022 televised baseball contingency season in case of a new COVID-19 variant outbreak or extended pandemic problems. Depending on the course of the pandemic and whether there is a fourth wave, some teams could plan to practice in Taiwan for next year’s spring training. This move would be strategically forward-looking and leverage Taiwan’s exemplary ability to manage this pandemic, allowing professional athletes to perform unhindered on the island’s nationwide “bubble.”
Additionally, such a powerful MLB move would stand in strong contrast to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its recent kowtowing to Beijing.
The NBA looks to China as a huge growth market. The NBA has shown earlier success in penetrating the PRC market — in particular when Yao Ming was playing for the Houston Rockets. This mainland China market is irrelevant to MLB, since it has no short-or-medium term business or expansion opportunities in the PRC. In fact, as the MLB looks forward to new international expansion (outside of Canada) or for new development leagues, there are really only two realistic and ripening markets: Latin America and Asia – in particular, Japan – are where highly-developed professional baseball leagues have matured over the years.
Moving the MLB All-Star Game to Taiwan may be an idea out of left field, but from a policy perspective the concept is not dissimilar to the use of rock music in the former Soviet bloc with Scorpions’ song, “Wind of Change.” If a German rock group helped change the East-West dialogue at the end of the Cold War via a CIA program (listen to the podcast), then imagine what baseball can do for democracy, freedom and beer sales.
This is a tense moment and a time when American “strategic ambiguity” and security commitments to Taiwan are being questioned. Given this incoherence, no better tool than Major League Baseball can be used to affirm American commitment to and interest in Taiwan.
America’s pastime is not just a way for us to remind Americans of our annual springtime spiritual renewal. It’s a symbol of all things immutably good. The All-Star Game has already made its move to show, in MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s words, “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport.” Those values lie at the heart and soul of freedom and democracy, values shared by Taiwan and disdained by Beijing.
America is engaged in a high-stakes game of “chicken” with the PRC, with U.S. naval vessels plying the waters in the South China Sea to defend freedom of navigation, both there and throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Sending “the boys of summer” to the straits of Taiwan would be using hardball as soft power.
An MLB move like this might provoke mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to continue its fighter jet incursions into Taiwanese airspace. But in this case, the combat jets streaking into Taiwan’s skies might be followed by the roar of a crowd and an announcer declaring, “Play ball!”
Markos Kounalakis is a nationally-syndicated foreign affairs columnist and a Hoover Institution visiting fellow working on China’s Global Sharp Power project. He is the author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering.” He is California’s first “Second Gentleman,” married to Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis.