by Darren Clarke, December 6, 2020
“The 2019 season will be remembered as the year of the home run, when baseballs flew out of stadiums at a historic rate. But in front offices across the sport, it will also be remembered as yet another season when attendance continued to dwindle…”
New York Times, September 29, 2019
“Game One of the Dodgers’ series against the Tampa Bay Rays attracted 9.1 million viewers, Fox Sports said. The game was the most watched program on Tuesday but also became the least-watched World Series game ever — or at least since Nielsen began tracking ratings in 1968.”
CNBC, October 21, 2020
The steady decline of interest in baseball was never more abundantly clear than the first game of the World Series. The game itself included one of baseball’s marquee franchises in the Los Angeles Dodgers playing the scrappy, low payroll, underdog, David to the Dodgers’ Goliath, the Tampa Bay Rays. Further, the game was being played against the backdrop of a relatively barren, relatively sports starved, pandemic world. Begging the question- Why would it end up being, “least watched World Series game ever…”?
Short answer? Because baseball needs an intervention.
Now, the notion of exploring the problem with baseball is nothing new. The external ridiculing of baseball by the rising generation of sports generalists/basketball-football fans (who often have never really liked baseball) has only been surpassed by the weighty self doubt and loathing Major League Baseball seems to regard itself with. The willingness to change isn’t baseball’s problem. It’s the unwillingness to recognize and celebrate the unique virtues of the game that is the issue.
So MLB, sit the hell down and let me expand on how to find your game, your fans, your unique mojo.
1- Be Yourself
Stop trying to be football, or basketball and while I know you’re not trying to be hockey right now, at your current rate of trying on different clothes you’ll likely get there. Don’t.
Celebrate the game of baseball. Sell yourself.
The problem with this advice is that your journey into self-loathing has left you completely unaware of what makes you great so let me start by telling you-
Being a community touchstone, a sunny spot to hang out on a summer day to have a beer, chat with friends, people watch and intermittently consider a diverse set of identifiable characters, great athletes, compete in a languid drama with a definitive winner and loser. At its’ best baseball offers something compelling and surprising to both the casual and the more intense viewer.
In Roger Kahn’s great book Boys of Summer he mentions something seemingly small on the surface but that strikes at the heart of baseball’s estrangement from itself. Kahn is at Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn for a day game and mentions that a few rows down from his vantage point a stewardess is writing a letter to someone.
That’s what you are missing.
The idea of the ball park as a community centre. A place people gravitate to as much to be with other people, a place that all levels of baseball fans, even non-baseball fans, think of as a natural part of their spring and summer orbit.
You don’t have that right now.
We’ll look more at improving the relationship between teams and the general community in later intervention points but let me expand on the point of being yourself. If you continue to try and trace the sensibilities, the dramatic ebbs and flows, the technologies, of football and basketball, or the artificially juiced Survivor or American Idol, why would people choose to watch you and not- football, basketball, Survivor, American Idol? The real deal will always be better than the pretender. So why are you pretending?
And look, I’ve said some sweet things about your game, lots of prose oriented talents have waxed romantic about baseball but you have to remember as regal as baseball can be, as elegant and gorgeous as it can be, hallmarked by the greatness of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Fernando Tatis Jr, Mike Trout, there’s another aspect of your game that you shouldn’t forget- it also attracts mutts, slackers, flat out weirdos- Mark Fydrych, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Manny Ramirez, Bob Ueker. I mention this because corporate-think only dreams in leading men when those outside the box can and have done as much for you as those inside the box. Embrace the players, embrace the elements of your game that don’t neccessarily come with exclamation points attached.
There’s a scene late in the movie Bull Durham that you should consider here. Catcher Crash Davis visits the mound and one by one players keep sidling up to the mound to participate in an increasingly off point conversation. That’s part of baseball. You don’t make Peter Gibbons of Office Space a workaholic, you don’t make the Dude from the Big Lebowski drive around in a brand new car, and you don’t want Forrest Gump suddenly talking like Patrick Stewart.
Look at the great players of the various leagues. Look at them. Hockey has Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, the NBA has Lebron James and Michael Jordan, the NFL has Tom Brady and Lawrence Taylor. They look like great athletes. At first blush that seems great for those sports doesn’t it? Maybe it is. But you have an advantage I think you’ve forgotten about. To appreciate that advantage look at arguably your best player ever- Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth, a chubby dude with skinny legs. That’s your guy. That’s awesome. While other sports are pretty much limited to athletic athletes, you’re not. Baseball provides fans with stars like David Wells, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, Bartolo Colon, Prince Fielder. You know how many fans at home can relate to Lebron’s body type? Not a lot. David Wells body type? Lotttttttssssss.
Embrace that. Love that.
2- Reimagine Your Television Product (Stop longingly looking at the NFL)
Given you are seeking to re-find the beauty of your story it’s important to be able to share it. Find great storytellers for your story.
One of the reasons people revere Harry Caray, Phil Rizzuto and Vin Scully for their TV work isn’t so much about nostalgia as it is how charismatic they were. Each in their own way captivated their viewer. Caray and Rizzutto in particular had a knack for irreverence that is almost entirely missing from the modern broadcast. If you are going to tap into who you are remember that nobody takes someone to a ballgame they can’t stand chatting with for three hours. Further, remember, rarely do two interesting people at a ballgame just to talk about baseball for three hours. I grew up watching Yankee games on the local Buffalo station and we loved Phil Rizzuto’s constant veering into entirely irrelevant stories about golfing with, “The Yankee Clipper.”
On the Smartless podcast Will Ferrell reminisced about doing his Harry Caray impression to an audience of people who mostly didn’t know who Caray was. He worried if his skit was going to work with an audience unfamiliar with Caray. But of course it did.
Give us people that we want to hang out with for three hours. People that transcend the game.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about spin rate, bat flips, exit velocity, pitch counts but three hours of analytics is beyond boring. There’s a reason accounting isn’t televised. Baseball is a nuanced, often quiet game. That’s okay. In many ways that’s great. I know you love trying to coopt what the NFL does but that won’t help you here.
The NFL’s orgy of too many chuckleheads chuckling at their own jokes ain’t for you. In fact not being that is precisely the way to go. What Vin Scully did as a one man broadcast outfit was perfect and it was timeless. Seek that. Not everybody has to be Vin Scully and frankly, few can, however that idea of humble, curious, unique personalities seeking to dig deeper into the personalities of your game, on the field and off- that is what you need. Baseball is the perfect backdrop for storytelling, for the transcendent, for the irreverent and whimsical. So find some people who can tell some damn stories- be they erratic like Caray, irreverent like Rizzuto, or more profound like Scully, seek them out and get them behind the mic.
Think- Bill Murray.
3- Celebrate Today’s Players and Give Them Leading Roles
It’s a false choice that you have to select between, 1) Celebrating the past, 2) Celebrating the present. You can do both.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the most extroverted players in the MLB community. In and of itself it’s great. So celebrate Trevor Bauer’s cheekiness, celebrate Ronald Acuna Jr.’s audacity but don’t forget to tap into different personalities. When every single player is behaving exactly the same way in terms of shameless celebration I don’t see how this is any different than when every player was worrying about unwritten rules and underplaying everything
Clearly the message to MLB players is a certain kind of act will be placed at the front of the bus. Be better than that, be more than that.
“The Best Story Wins,” is and old saying my friend Mal Romanin likes to quote when we’re discussing the current state of baseball. It’s the perfect perspective to consider at this point as great stories have great characters. The problem is that the central figures in your game, in your story- The Starting Pitcher, has slowly seen their role diminished in favour of a blurring turnstile of nameless, faceless, extras, i.e. “The Opener.” You’ve killed off your lead character without providing a compelling alternative.
At one time I could tell you the starting rotation of pretty much every team in baseball. That’s good. You want fans to identify with your players. And we knew coming into a game that the end result would largely be defined by the likes of Jack Morris, Dave Stieb, Roy Halladay, Pedro Martinez, Pacual Perez, etc. You get the idea. Now we have playoff games where, between the two teams playing, more pitchers appear in one nine-inning game, a single game, than the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays used all season. Eighteen pitchers were used in single games in the playoffs- games that didn’t go to extra innings (The Jays used 15 pitchers total for the entirety of the 1985 season). Nobody wants to watch that.
In 2014, not so long ago, Madison Bumgarner owned the playoff leading role. He threw 52 and 2/3 innings in the span of 21 days. And people will remember that World Series as Bumgarner’s World Series. That’s the kind of story you want. It’s easy, it’s identifiable, it’s memorable.
Now, your analytics driven teams aren’t going to change on their own so you have to do something to limit the amount of pitchers they have available to them. Maybe you do this by limiting transactions outside of anything beyond the long term injured list players. Honestly, one way or another just do it, figure it out. I’m not asking for everybody to be Bob Gibson and pitch complete games every time out but you need them going deeper in the game than the craziness that has unfolded the past couple seasons. Give fans back identifiable starters, literal and figurative central points for the game and its’ story.
Nobody wants to pay to see your analytics teams be clever. I don’t know what demographic you think you’re getting here- the modern demographic that watches basketball teams that are generally defined by two players? The older generation? No. No generation wants that, cares for that or is falling in love with that. You’re not gaining new fans and you’re pissing your old fans off.
For all MLB’s copying of other sports and dramatic devices how do you miss the main attraction of those successful entities- Compelling characters at the heart of the thing. Movies have stars, the NFL has quarterbacks, the NBA teams have one to three main guys who play 90-100% of the important games define the outcome.
And if you weren’t sure you needed an intervention, please note where we are right now with me begging you to give us back players to love.
4- Chop Ticket Prices
I don’t mean kinda’ chop. I mean really, really, chop ticket prices for all seats at your parks. Give people real access to all parts of the park. We went to Jays games as a kid- drove an hour and a half to Toronto, dealt with ridiculous parking. It was $2 for a bleacher seat ticket.
This is what it needs to be- the ticket cost as an afterthought.
Get people to the park. You have 81 home games. Get folks there. Reinvigorate the cultural prominence of the ball park in your town. If you build it they will come. If they come to the park they will get attached to your game. If they get attached to the game it will resonate in a host of ways- increased TV/Online viewership, increased concessions and merchandising sales, increased revenue from licensing agreements.
Bottom line is that the value of everything you currently oversee is attached to a diminishing fan base. It’s an easy argument that losses in ticket revenue from price cuts can be overcome with more bodies in the park but when you consider all the indirect benefits embracing this idea should be a no brainer.
5- Get Rid of the Replay, Give Back Moment
There’s lots of reasons to hate the replay- First, often you still get it wrong in conjunction with the game focusing on navel gazing of managers and umpires. But that’s not really the heart of the problem. You take away the emotion of the moment. That instant plot turn- out or safe. The human element of the game. Surrendering the real consequences of the moment to elongated, anti-climatic loitering, artificial drama, doesn’t work on any level, particularly in the context of the game.
There’s nothing wrong with holding umpires accountable, ensuring employment is based on merit as opposed to tenure. That’s just sensible. The electronic second guessing though is silly. Get rid of the replay and be totally transparent about how absolute the decision is- The game of baseball will be umpired solely by human beings. Mistakes will be made but that’s okay as we’re unwilling to trade the moment for the moping. Yes, Twitter will go off, fans will yell at their TV’s but that’s okay, tell them you will never change and without MLB’s constant show of weakness providing fuel perhaps the narrative will quieten down.
Talk to your broadcasting partners. Tell them to place reasonable limits on second guessing and seventeen replays featuring, “I think he may have come off the bag for a fraction of a second.”
6- De-Incentivize Losing
Over the past fews years about half the teams in your league have been cleverly seeking better draft position by taking shameless competitive dives. Meaning, 50% of your fans have been asked to support teams that weren’t trying to win baseball games.
I don’t know exactly what the answers are here but when half your league isn’t trying to win- that’s a problem. This isn’t a fantasy league, this isn’t a vanity project, this is a league asking fans to watch and financially support their competitive offerings. Too often those competitions don’t involve two teams trying to win.
Beyond the fact this tanking mentality is lazy and unimaginative, I’m not sure how giving fans three to five years of crap baseball to watch became cool. Figure out how to stop abject failure from being a viable path to becoming the Houston Astros World Series team.
7- Quit Giving Away Peripheral Parts of Your Games
Extra innings, no-DH in the NL, even the intentional walk. You might not see any value you in them (or to give you some corporate speak- efficiencies) but they make for the kind of crazy peripheral happening most sports can’t offer. I was at a 16-inning game in Cleveland a few years ago. It was awesome. We did not care about having to drive four hours to get home after midnight. Why? Because we were part of something amazing, something unique. We decided we were going to start a Jerry Sands Fanclub, we were booing A-Rod, we were singing along to Journey’s, “Don’t Stop believing.” It was a blast.
In terms of moving to a universal DH, watch the dugout, watch the crowd, the next time a pitcher gets a hit. It’s pure jubilation. Leave some room for the long shot that provides joy. Don’t give that away. And given how often you have shown the Bartolo Colon home run in between innings on MLB.TV you should know this. The NL having the pitcher hit, that’s sandlot baseball. Everybody fields, everybody hits. Plus, you had things setup real nice anyway. If a fan likes the DH they have the AL, if they don’t they have the NL.
As far as the intentional walk goes, we’ll all be fine with the fraction of a second it adds to the average game time. Call your efficiency guys into your office now and ask them about the fraction of a second you cut with the intentional walk change and the minutes you added to game time with 60 year-old men mulling over whether to call for a replay or going out to the mound to make their ninth pitching change of the night. You’re like a bank robber who keeps stealing bank stationary instead of money and, and, you keep dropping your wallet while in the bank. Quit dropping valuable parts of your game to import tedium.
8- Move the Fences Back, Fix the Damn Ball
Clearly in 2019, in unison with smaller stadiums, larger changes to swing paths, the changes to the actual ball made for seemingly every team to eradicate every home run record ever- by August. This kind of complete selling out of the integrity of the game not only diminished past accomplishments it diminished current ones. It’s bogus. You know it, we know it.
Whatever you did to the ball that makes for half swings, balls hit off the end of the bat or in on the hands to suddenly start flying out of the park- stop it. Give the home run back its’ dignity.
Next, do something about the many bandboxes you have masquerading as legitimate baseball parks. In this regard there’s no better example than New York’s Yankee Stadium where fraudulent statistical careers are being built on what were once routine fly balls being caught by spectators instead of fielders in lieu of the lack of real estate in the outfield.
Getting the ball right and making thoughtful changes to add space back to outfields throughout the league not only gives the home run back its’ legitimacy it increases the value of other compelling parts of your game- the triple, the double, base running, base stealing. The stuff that thrills a crowd. If you truly want the game to include diverse personalities and skill sets then give more than one skill set a fighting chance. The three true outcomes world you’ve created is beyond boring.
Give us back the likes of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Tony Fernandez. Give us slashing, dashing and crashing.
9- Find a Real Leader
Find somebody who loves the game. Someone who is strong, smart, who sees the big picture and can lead you out of your destructive journey of self doubt.
Hint: He’s probably not the commissioner right now.
Find the characters and the operating process to celebrate the best parts of what you are with as many people as possible. Be accessible (having players mic’d up on the field by the way, great idea), be transparent, be strong. Mostly though, be interesting.
And then tell your stories.