Frank Thomas is absolutely right.
"I'm disappointed," Thomas told ESPN Chicago about Jose Abreu declining to participate in the Home Run Derby after he hit 29 home runs by the All-Star break. "He's a breakout star. He needs to let the world know who Jose Abreu is."
Baseball does a lousy job of marketing itself. The players are partially to blame for this. You may not care about the Home Run Derby, but it is conducted on a night when basically nothing else is going on in sports and draws a large TV audience; it will get a much higher rating, for example, than any individual game ESPN will broadcast this season. More importantly, it's a popular event for kids. My 16-year-old nephew doesn't care much about the All-Star Game, but he will watch the Home Run Derby.
That's exactly why Abreu should be in it. Sorry, but nobody is watching White Sox games outside of White Sox fans or when they play your team. They're not going to be on many national TV games this year, they're not going to be in the pennant race, and they're not all that interesting on days Chris Sale doesn't pitch.
But Abreu is interesting. This is his chance, as Thomas implied, to get his name out there, for fans to check him out -- for maybe a kid in Texas, Florida or Minnesota to become an Abreu fan. Maybe the next time the White Sox visit, this new fan will want to go see Abreu in person.
Unfortunately, not enough players perceive the Home Run Derby as an important event. I get it; it's a pain after a long first half, nobody wants to do it and look bad, and some use the excuse that it can mess up their swing (give me a break).
Think back, however, to Michael Jordan and the Slam Dunk Contest. He knew it was important not just for him but for the league to have big stars participate. He did it only three years, but those contests (he won twice) were iconic events in helping to grow the NBA's popularity in the 1980s.
In time, maybe Abreu will have earned enough leeway to pass on the Home Run Derby. But right now he's a rookie, he's already the game's premier slugger, and fans want to see him. The same goes for Mike Trout. With 22 home runs this season, he should be in this as well.
Part of the problem is there is no pressure from their peers telling them this is important. Marketing yourself is considered self-promotion and viewed negatively -- no different than Yasiel Puig, god forbid, flipping his bat. Consider why there is resentment toward Bryce Harper. Because he appears in a few commercials?
Baseball doesn't have to be as star-driven as the NBA or NFL, but players need to realize that marketing isn't just about making more money on top of the piles of money they already make. It's about selling the sport. Veterans should be pushing stars to participate, and MLB needs to do a better job of telling its stars to participate (just like the NBA makes LeBron James do halftime interviews during playoff games or conduct postgame news conferences).
Players can look around and see teams drawing big numbers of fans to the ballpark and think the game is in its glory days. Even the Tampa Bay Rays, last in the majors in attendance last season, drew 1.51 million fans to the ballpark. But in 1973, that figure would have ranked sixth in the majors. Just because teams are drawing more than that now doesn't mean attendance figures can't some day dwindle back down to 1970s levels.
In other words, don't take things for granted. There may come a time when fans won't care at all about watching Jose Abreu hit home runs.