Baseball would like to tell you that its waning popularity in the youth market is because it has a pace of play problem.
Certainly, eliminating some of the dead time between action is a great goal to keep the attention span of the generation that thinks eating Tide pods and putting the video on YouTube is a good time.
Yet for those in the 30-40-year-old span, when we think about baseball growing up most of us had nearly a common favorite player: Ken Griffey Jr. He captivated our minds and pre-game diving drills in a way that no player really has since. What image do you think of when you think of Junior? Smiling with a backwards hat.
A backwards hat.
That is what made him stand out. Yankee fans might have loved Don Mattingly, The Big Hurt took his cuts in Chicago, but Junior Oh My! He lept onto walls that fell down on top of him, he smiled like he was catching a ball for the first time, and of course was hitting home runs with a swing so sweet and pure we ignored the burgeoning muscles of the Athletics down the coast.
In 2018, who is baseball’s biggest personality? The surly Bryce Harper who has been a phenom since making the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 13-year-old with the cockiness to prove it. No thanks, bro.
Mike Trout is baseball’s undisputed Greatest Player. He is young, dynamic, but does nothing to captivate future generations the way Griffey did.
The NBA figured this out years ago. They have Lebron against Kyrie, James Harden against Steph Curry, etc.. They have made the players the focus of the game because it is players and personalities that people want to see. Baseball wants you to think you are watching for the purity of the game. What would the Olympics be without the personal stories? The 1992 Olympics were Nancy Kerrigan v Tonya Harding…simple as that.
Hats will not figure all of this out. No one is flocking to baseball because Fernando Rodney tilts his and shoots an arrow when he makes a save. Yet allowing some expression certainly has to have some place in this game right? Many players point to the unwritten rules, like when Brian McCann took exception to Jose Fernandez a couple of years ago and blocked him from crossing home plate in defiance of the “old way”.
Last year’s World Baseball Classic proved what this kind of excitement can bring to a game. Sure, they play 162, so staying grounded for each game is important. Certainly, though a few more fist pumps would help keep people interested. Give a few more kids a hero to follow because of their personality, not simply because they take walks better than anyone else in the game.
Certainly, language is part of this issue. With the rise of Latin American players, MLB struggles to hire enough translators to keep good interviews coming and let the humor of players shine through. There is this interview of Kawasaki that is hilarious, and apparently, Ichiro unleashes a tirade of profanity to pump his All-Star teammates up when he was in his prime. Baseball is working hard on this, providing multiple translators now per team and in minor league baseball, many teams have to have at least one coach who is bilingual. They are also helping players learn English, which certainly will help with the accessibility of the game.
All this isn’t to say all players are boring right now. The NFL, of course, had many players express their feelings about racial inequality starting with Colin Kaepernick, which brought a wave of controversy to the league. Baseball doesn’t want that, and only Bruce Maxwell of the A’s kneeled before the anthem.
Yet as the WBC showed, baseball has players with personality. Javier Baez of the Cubs, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa of the Astros, and many more have tremendous personalities that baseball needs to play UP, not DOWN. I think even Bryce Harper could be used to baseball’s advantage. The duo of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and their Bryzzo company for crying out loud.
Thankfully, we do have Stephen Vogt (from my hometown!).
The great baseball movies have great characters: Crash Davis, Willie Mays Hayes, Nuke Laloosh, and of course Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Personality attracts people, and baseball cannot forget that popularity is measured not just in raw data and numbers but actually people turning on games to watch their heroes play.