If you’ve been following baseball over the past two years, you’ve heard a lot about things like “pace of play”, robotic strike zones, pitch clocks, and other modifications to on-field play that can speed the game up and appeal to todays younger crowds. I happen to be a (not so) esteemed member of this generation that suddenly has such appeal for Major League Baseball, and I have some thoughts on making the game more palatable for younger people, while also preserving the integrity of the game itself, and allow it to continue to bridge generations together.
Let the Kids Play
This was a brilliant marketing strategy by MLB leading into the postseason last year. The game needs personality, spice, rivalry, and drama. Bat flips, tongue wagging, flexing, all of it. It’s a game of stillness, a game where emotion has time to incubate and crescendo unlike any other sport, and yet we praise players who continue to repress that primal instinct to release all of that penned up excitement and keep their heads down. It’s time to turn that narrative over, and allow the men who play the childs game, to act like children.
Don’t Cut the Diamond
90 Feet between bases, and 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to the plate. So much of the game has changed, from ballparks, to bats, to players, to the balls themselves, but John McGraw, Ted Williams, Walter Johnson, and Greg Maddux have all known these dimensions. It’s what connects the old game to the new, gives the generations that have come before, and those yet to arrive. It’s as sacred as three strikes or nine fielders, you just simply can’t change it. Jayson Stark of the Athletic reports that the MLBPA is experimenting with the idea of moving the mound, and has even conducted some studies on the concept ($ required), but I would urge them to reconsider.
Bring The Game to the Masses
I have many gripes against the NFL, but I will say one thing they really did get right is how they do their TV games. It’s not perfect, but it’s simple. Rather than get embroiled in small battles with regional cable providers, they simply present the product to the national networks, and make the games more of an event. I don’t think that model would work with baseball per se, but something like that would help. Embrace streaming services without needing high price cable providers, many of whom are being left behind by millennials in record numbers . Would it be THAT weird to put MLB games on Hulu, or Netflix? What about MLB’s own streaming service? Are these THAT hard to envision? They can be, actually, since many teams lean on these lucrative cable deals to boost the franchise’s value, but if the game is truly asking how to attract the younger crowds, this is where you start.
Sure, Shorten the Games, but Tread Lightly
One thing that separates baseball from so many American sports, is the absence of a clock. So much of life in this country is pressed to the merciless measurements of time, that a pastoral game that was once described as a “safety valve” for the nation. On the other hand, the game is at its best when it is popular, and part of getting to that place with younger fans means killing some of that “dead space” when the pitcher holds the ball…. shakes off the signs… steps off the rubber… shakes off more signs… goes into his incredibly complex windup, then finally pitches the ball. I’m not diametrically opposed to a pitch clock, limiting mound visits, and keeping pitching changes in check, but we need to be wary of changing the “bones” of the game. Starting an inning with runners on base is probably the most outrageous suggestion i’ve seen so far. I think we will have to accept that the game as we love it could get more efficient, but compromising the integrity of the game itself has to take precedence.
Let’s Face it, Universal DH is a Good Idea.
There are two reasons to embrace the DH in the National League: Bartolo Colon, and Chipper Jones. One, the absolute worst at-bat in the history of anything. The other the absolute best, and could’ve been a lot more if a DH was available. Take a step back from that, and the former, while incredibly lovable (Probably the most adored PED user since David Ortiz) is really just a novelty for the more avid fans. I remember trying to explain to my wife what made “Big Sexy” such fun to watch, and her confused stare, trying to figure out why this heavyset, antithesis of the modern athlete is “poetry in motion”. On the other hand, Chipper Jones is a first ballot hall of famer, what is there to prove? The question becomes, if he didn’t have to play the field (he was an average at absolute best third basemen, and a laughable outfielder), and injury becomes less of an issue, what sort of player does he become? His power carries him to 500 home runs, easily. Couple that with his outstanding ability to get on base (a career .406 OBP), and I think could be looking at one of the best hitters ever. The main point is though, it keeps an all time great playing longer, rather than donating his at bats to a hapless, bloated mess (sorry, but he kinda is) at the plate, flailing helplessly and stopping any excitement in the name of “strategy”.
The truth is, the game is most healthy and enjoyable when it’s popular. Buck O’Neil made the case that “we’ve done a lot to baseball”, but haven’t really messed it up that bad yet. At some point we have to accept change in order to better baseball, and bring it to future generations, so they can enjoy the game as have learned to love it. Change isn’t always a bad thing… A sport that predates the motor vehicle could probably use some.