To declare the impending doom of baseball is not exactly what one would call an original thought. Depending on whom you ask, this game of ours has been on the brink of collapse for decades, nay centuries, and is doomed to be relegated to the annals of of history as a charming, pastoral game that was played by our grandparents when times were ‘simpler.’
Major League Baseball has weathered many storms over its lifetime. Two World Wars couldn’t take it down; it emerged from the Great Depression stronger than ever; and now we’re working on our second Pandemic while planning opening day. Even obstacles brought on by its own doing, like scandal and labor strikes, can’t bring it down. This game of ours has seen generations of Americans put a fair amount of effort into killing it, but with dogged determination, it has shifted, adapted, and persevered, becoming stronger than ever before.
It can’t do it by itself though. It needs a hero.
Baseball’s first real hero came in the form of a rowdy son of a bartender, who, upon first gaze, seemed comically unsuited for the job at hand. He seemed almost poorly constructed, with skinny legs tucked underneath a hulking, barrel-like chest, and a head that resembled that of an oversized infant. Unlike many ballplayers of his time, who quietly took to the game as if it were some necessary burden they had to bear, he was loud, brash, and arrogant, and seemed to love every second of being a ballplayer.
Oh, and he could swing that bat, too. He hit home runs with such an unprecedented ferocity that he changed the game and how it was played at its very core. Suddenly, scoring chances that often took time and patience to develop could be resolved by a single mighty swing from this man’s powerful arms. Fans began to notice, and came to the ballpark in droves to watch the majesty of his big flies. In fact, the Sultan of Swat was a driving force behind the game, nearly tripling its gate draw in just two years.
Ruth’s outsized personality off the field, coupled with his mythic powers on it, created a perfect storm—one that the game, and really the country, desperately needed. In 1919, the US had just been ravaged by a flu pandemic, and World War I was still burned fresh into the minds of much of the country. America needed someone to take their minds off the merciless horrors of war and disease and place them into the wonderment of a game they could call their own. And Ruth delivered in spades. From between the foul lines to outside the stadium walls, Ruth created a new generation of fans. It was, in a way, a cultural revolution on the field, buoyed by one mans Herculean performance on it.
“You can’t kill baseball because when you get ready to kill baseball, something is going to come up, or somebody is going to come up to snatch you out of that.”Buck O’Neil
What Ruth did on the field, during those years when the game needed it most, simply could never be replicated. He was so far ahead of everyone else that it shook the very foundations of how the game was played. There have been many heroes since him—Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron—but none who transcended the game strictly on their statistical accomplishments, like the King of Crash. The way the game is played now, it just can’t be done. We are an age of cynics, and of doubters, and rightfully so. The game is spread so far, and fans quartered so tight, that anyone with a remote chance at achieving a Ruthian career is virtually unrecognizable to the general public.
Still, the game is in need of the same caliber of cultural overhaul that Ruth provided to his era. Like a failing monarch, the game has become too obsessed with its own legacy, sitting on piles of riches and making tone-deaf proclamations about how poorly things have gone. Like so many times before, it will take a single man to lift the game from the downward slope that has emerged the past few years. A man who will challenge the cultural norms of the professional ballplayer, usher in an era of the game that will reinvigorate an evaporating fan base, and help baseball fight to reclaim its market share in the society that created it.
The Phillies right fielder has been both loathed and loved by baseball fans since his bombastic arrival at the age of 19. Dubbed the phenom of a generation, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before he ever played in a Major League game. He shot through the Washington Nationals farm system, playing only 130 games before arriving in the nation’s capital, ready to take on the world.
The road seemed paved with gold for the overnight sensation, and he delivered on the hype bestowed upon him so early in his career. Through his time with the Nationals, Harper compiled an impressive statistical resumé:
What followed was the 2018 offseason, where, after a drawn out, epic offseason struggle, Bryce Harper signed with divisional rival Philadelphia for an (at the time) earth-shattering 13 years and $330 million. This easily defeated Alex Rodriguez‘s now infamous $252 million dollar contract, the richest in baseball history at the time (of course, it bears noting that one Mike Trout exceeded this deal since then). In the backdrop of an offseason that saw most free agents having to take ‘pillow’ contracts, with some even holding out into the regular season before signing, Harper had become the standard-bearer for high profile contracts in baseball.
Harper had branded himself in Washington as an outspoken advocate of young players, and of having fun while playing the game: something that’s been eroded in recent years out of fear of scrutiny in a sport built on failure, with constant eyes watching. The number of eyes watching, though, has been in steady decline since Harper burst into the league:
Much like when Ruth began his ascendance, the game has been leaking fans thanks to obstacles both external (coronavirus, plethora of entertainment options) and internal (labor strife, bad TV deals, lack of diversity and accessibility), and has reached something of a pivot point. Harper can’t do it the same way that Ruth did (as stated above); there’s simply no way to stand out enough from the field of players at the level the game is played today. For Harper to do what needs to happen, it has to be done outside the foul poles. Mobilize the fans by making an impact beyond his own dugout. Bring the young players who make up the game along with him. Promote the game in communities of color, and help amplify the examples of the ones who make it. Be a voice from the game to the fans, something that seems to be lost right now, and bring them back to the park. Give the people something to see, and protect the players who do the same.
Quite frankly, there’s no other player in baseball who has a voice that can project as loud as Harper’s, and has the on-field prowess to back it up. His reach beyond the fences via social media, his conduct off the field, and his performance on it is critical to the game’s success. Echoing the scouting reports on him as he attained phenom status: he has all the tools to get the job done; he just has to put them into action.
It’s time for Bryce to step into the role that seems to be made for him, and to take control of the game that he loves, like the Babe did before.
The battle to save baseball will be fought on Broad Street.