Monday Musing: Make (pro) baseball fun again
It’s the question on most baseball people’s minds: How to make the game more appealing/fun to a larger audience?
From the league’s corporate office hoping to improve decreasing television ratings to superstar Bryce Harper, the mystery continues to perplex.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has introduced effective measures aimed at shrinking game times. Fans on average are watching the same amount of baseball in less time, a benefit in a world where life is consumed fifteen seconds or less at a time. Some teams, like the Arizona Diamondbacks, tried a new set of uniforms. That one didn’t go so well, but at least they’re trying.
A lot of the debate rages around play style. One group champions the old school way of playing: head down, respectful strolls around the bags after homers, and bottling up of emotions. The other side adores expression: bat flips for days, showing happiness when doing something good, and generally enjoying the game as children do.
The argument for the latter revolves around a world where athletes, not sports, are the crux of popularity. That there are more casual fans of Steph Curry and LeBron James than the game of basketball itself, so by ignoring that phenomenon baseball continues alienating the casual fan they so crave. The former adores baseball as a timeless sport, wanting to push forward with America’s pastime while casting off the non-believers. That, despite an ever growing age of the average viewer, there are other solutions to solve the problems.
While the answers vary depending on who you ask, there’s no magic bullet to fix a decade’s old problem. It’ll take years of commitment to improving the game’s image before the trend of aging fans is reversed to a more sustainable model.
That said, one piece of that puzzle might be happening right under MLB’s nose.
For those watching the College World Series Saturday night when Coastal Carolina knocked off TCU, advancing to the championship series, they saw something strange in the Chanticleers dugout. It didn’t take the TV cameras long to find it, giving the worldwide viewing audience a look
That’s Bruce. He’s a shark, named from the popular yet overrated kids movie Finding Nemo. Staff at TD Ameritrade Field acquired Bruce and many other inflatables like him after they found their way onto the field. Coastal players took a liking to Bruce, deciding to make him their good luck charm or rally shark or what have you. Bruce’s trainer(?) was sophomore second baseman Seth Lancaster, who is sitting out the rest of Coastal’s season after a Super Regional knee injury. Seth gave Bruce his jacket, carried him around, and made him an integral part of the dugout.
It wasn’t just Bruce though. Coastal had other things in their quiver of whimsy, including a Fathead of their head coach Gary Gilmore and other assorted novelties. During an in game interview with Gilmore, the players rushed behind him carrying their implements of humor. They stood there as ESPN broadcast their silliness worldwide. During the most important game of their season, it was a levity filled moment.
It wasn’t just Coastal though. TCU brought an oar into their dugout as a prop, the idea being to “stir things up,” with other teams all bringing their unique flair to their dugouts. It could be short lived after the NCAA banned antics similar to these in softball earlier this year, but baseball fans got a glimpse of the fun these players were having during the biggest stages of their baseball lives to date.
So why not bring that to the major league level?
Baseball is a children’s game played by millionaires. It’s not war, it’s not serious by itself but only as serious as we make it. Something like this, allowing these overgrown kids to outwardly show their goofy sides would be the perfect humanizing effect. You don’t even have to go that far, it’d just be a lot of fun. Imagine seeing Elvis Andrus in the dugout trying to touch Adrian Beltre’s head with an inflatable octopus’ tentacle or something similar. You’d have no choice but to laugh, but more importantly you’d be entertained.
In theory at least.
Something like this has made an appearance at the major league level already without lasting long. In 2014, the Dodgers had a now infamous bubble machine they used to celebrate home runs. MLB told them to stop, and after that the bubble of fun popped. The players loved it, but MLB didn’t and that was that.
Texas A&M currently uses a bubble machine at Blue Bell Park whenever they score a run, so the Dodgers were doing something right two years ago when it comes to fun.
It’s not just baseball higher ups that have no patience for this sort of thing. The fans have an ever changing length of leash for shenanigans like this depending on record. Win, and teams could play in their birthday suits without so much as an objection. Lose, and if you don’t look like you left your mother’s funeral you don’t want to win enough. There’s no gray on this issue in the mind of fans.
No one knows that better than a player for Texas. Derek Holland was and is a constant target for this sort of low grade outrage. Early in his career, Holland broke out impressions which often made it onto television when Texas played national games. They were okay impressions, but harmless overall. After a while, Holland became typecast. His performance wasn’t always optimal, leading fans to believe the good natured side of Holland was to blame. That he couldn’t focus on the mound due to his Harry Caray impression or something else falling into the same category of ridiculousness. Now there’s a group of fans that despise Holland. They’ll chalk it up to his inconsistent performances, but ground zero was Holland’s initial willingness to have fun.
We don’t need less people like that. Baseball is full of the fun sucking robots who only speak in clichés while pledging to uphold tenants originally crafted before most fans in 2016 were born (though judging by the numbers, not that long before). It’s time to shake off the ideas that these players can’t have fun, and instead allow them to showcase their personalities without fear of reprisal. The key to this new fun revolution might be people who are already playing the game one level below the pros.
After all, they’re young people who love baseball. Maybe instead of telling them they’re wrong, we should listen to them.
It just might be the start to keeping baseball around a bit longer.