Forgive the melodramatic, clickbait-y headline. I don’t actually believe baseball is dying anytime soon, or even that it’s in significant decline. The powers-that-be, however, are clearly rethinking the game in an attempt to get more eyes on it more often. There’s discussion about improving pace of play and creating more offense, a mutually exclusive pair of goals that will probably just cancel each other out. Intentional walks are now just dumb signals from the manager instead of four wide ones. There’s evidence that the baseball has been juiced to create more dingers. Pitch clocks and some sort of adjustments to the extra innings rule are probably on the way (I’m pro home run derby, by the way, perhaps after playing a tenth inning to try to break the tie first).
Is any of that going to attract more casual fans? Fuck no. Are you gonna watch competitive chess just because it moves a little quicker? No way.
So how do we “save” the game? Let’s start by looking at what’s popular about the other major American sports. Football’s greatest assets are its short schedule and built-in violence, neither of which is going to fly with baseball. MLB’s postseason will never be the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs because playoff hockey is a unique gift from the gods that shall never be replicated. You’ll never steal all the weird European fans from soccer.
Which brings me to a league from which we can actually steal a helpful idea, and the entire inspiration for this post: the NBA. The association is always in the news. Shit, how many headlines has basketball stolen in the last week alone, without playing even a single game? News and rumors about player movement are the only stories outpacing reports about the big orange scumbag’s big orange scumbagginess. Why is that, and how can baseball replicate it?
Part of it’s the league’s unique player economy. A shortage of true superstars combined with a complex array of contract rules makes every deal important and nuanced. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never see anything similar in baseball without rules that seriously curb the spending of the bigger market teams.
There’s another facet to the NBA’s constant buzz, though, and it’s that the league is dripping with personality. The players, the coaches, the general managers, and the commentators are all extremely interesting, compelling characters. Yes, this is because most of them are giant assholes. But compare what you know about the Golden State Warriors with what you know about the Chicago Cubs. Steph and Clay are second generation superstars who shoot the lights out. Draymond’s a giant dick but the linchpin of the team. KD’s a generational talent who will forever be haunted by his decision to chase a ring. Anthony Rizzo…uh…plays first base and he’s good. I fucking love baseball and that’s all I can tell you about Anthony Rizzo.
When athletes have personalities and stories, everything they do becomes that much more compelling. I’d argue that baseball’s boring to so many people not just because of its slow pace and weird rules but primarily because its players are duller than your step mom’s Twitter account. All that crap about playing “the right way” by not being demonstrative after a big moment needs to fucking go. Encourage them to bedazzle their gloves, rock their hats backwards, and wear things that would give the NFL’s anti-fun police a coronary. Hand out cash prizes for the best home run celebration every month. Juice up the walk up music and give closers the sort of over-produced entrances that would make Bobby Roode jealous. Get everybody talking, and get them talking shit. Make the game compelling for people other than stat nerds and weird suburban housewives who fell in love with Dustin Pedroia.
And for the love of all that’s holy extend it into the god damn booth. Listen to Jeff Van Gundy do color for a basketball game and then try to listen to ESPN’s Aaron Boone. It’s like they’re not even the same species. Van Gundy’s brash, loud, and opinionated. Boone’s a tentative little fart in church. Watch Ernie, Shaq, Kenny, and Chuck do pregame, then compare their humor and enthusiasm to whatever gaggle of schmucks is sleepwalking through the lead-in to Orioles/Rays. You know why baseball puts people to sleep? Because the presentation’s got the tone of a bedtime story. Even when they’re presenting players who are actually compelling characters—guys like Bryce Harper or Madison Bumgarner—the walking Ambien overdoses running commentary just vomit up tropes like “oh, he’s a quirky character!”, unleash a polite chuckle, and ruin any chance they had of being remotely interesting.
You want to get more people watching and talking about baseball? Shove the pitch clock up your butt and focus on the people. It doesn’t matter how many dingers get hit or how fast the game goes if everyone involved comes off as some sort of focus group-approved robot.