Hey Batter Batter! The Boys of Summer Are Back!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the sport's history as America's favorite pastime is in jeopardy.
By Joshua Eferighe
The sun? Beaming. A swirl of vitamin D sweeping across open green pastures. The sky? Blue and clear as day. And you? Ballpark frank in one hand, ice-cold brew in the other, as you think, with total certainty, that right now nothing else matters. It wasn’t until an Atlanta Braves game that it clicked for me, but when it did, I understood why it’s called America’s favorite pastime. It’s the perfect way to enjoy the outdoors . . . leisurely. But after 150 years and a global pandemic that’s changed, well, everything, baseball is not the same. How the game is watched? Changed. How the game is played, courtesy of technological innovations? Changed. So, as the 2021 season gets underway, we’ll look at what the hell happened to the baseball we knew to see if it can ascend once again to being America’s favorite pastime. Batter up!
Breaking Down the Breakdown
Rule changes? Nothing shocking here. However, Major League Baseball has implemented changes using a minor league, the Atlantic League, as a testing lab that may alter how the game’s been played for years. All to bring some life to the game (more on that later). So they’re increasing the pitching distance by a foot — to 61.5 feet — in the latter half of this year’s season. The league is also trying out larger bases with a less-slippery surface, a 15-second pitch clock and an automatic ball-strike system. And while there’s no guarantee these changes will make it to the majors, it‘ll be interesting to see if they boost the thrill factor.
Return to the Olympics
After the International Olympic Committee voted to drop the sport in 2012 and 2016, baseball is returning this year to the Summer Games in Tokyo. America, often considered home to the world’s highest level of professional baseball, will be looking to regain prominence after South Korea won gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In fact, the U.S. hasn’t been the gold medalist since 2000 — while Cuba took the top spot in 1992, 1996 and 2004. Major leaguers can’t participate in the Olympics, and that’s a detriment for all competing countries, but especially Team USA. Meanwhile, Japan, Israel, Mexico and South Korea have already qualified for the six-team Olympic tournament. In June, the U.S. will host the Americas qualifying tournament in Florida to fill the fifth slot, while a final qualifying round in Taiwan will decide who gets the sixth.
Unspoken Rules? Meant to Be Broken
Bat flips, showboating around the bases and any kind of staring — at a home run you’ve hit or at the catcher a little too long after crossing home plate used to be major MLB no-no’s as behavior that embarrasses the opponent and generally reflects poor sportsmanship. But, in an effort to attract fans, theatrics are now IN. Bryce Harper, the youngest player to win a National League MVP Award unanimously, is downright irreverent; and others, like Tim Anderson of the White Sox, have a whole home run routine. Not all rules are getting tossed — stealing bases with a big lead or distracting the defense while making a play will remain — but discouraging players from expressing pain by rubbing where they’ve been hit after being whacked by a fastball? Out! Because? That’s entertainment, baby!
Baseball Card Boom
Baseball cards are as old as the game itself. In the late 1800s, they were used to help stiffen cigarette packs and became a hot commodity in the ’50s when Topps Gum Co. turned a simple hobby into a major business. Today, as the sport struggles with viewership and participation, the baseball card industry is exploding, with investment yields outperforming the S&P 500. Earlier this year, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card went for $5.2 million, becoming the highest-value sports card ever. So, why now? Discretionary income. The pandemic has folks stuck at home, unable to spend on vacations, eating out or partying. Why not trade cards? Hardly two years into the NFT trend, baseball cards have joined the movement, and Topps announced that it’s going public in a deal valued at $1.3 billion.
Problems? Yes, We’ve Got a Few
Speed and Action
The two loudest gripes about baseball? The length of play and lack of action. In fact, the game has been slowing down. In 15 years, the pace went from an average of 2 hours, 48 minutes to 3 hours, 7 minutes. The reason? It’s taking longer for players to hit and pitch. It’s also become a home-run and strikeout-dominated league. In 2014, only the Baltimore Orioles hit more than 200 homers; 24 teams did it the last normal season, 2019. Once total MLB strikeouts climbed above 30,000 in 1998, they stayed there, peaking at 42,823 before 2020’s abbreviated season. That means viewers used to see an average of 57 balls in play and 11 strikeouts per game, a stat that’s skewed in recent years to a disappointing 49 balls in play and 17 strikeouts. Translation: much less action. One possible solution? Incentivize steals to liven up the game. For the first time, pitchers must leave the rubber on the mound before throwing to any base. Should it move past the experimentation phase, pulling the pitching mound back would also put more balls in play and up the excitement factor.
News flash: Baseball is no longer America’s favorite pastime. World Series viewership in 2020 was a moribund 9.8 million — not even a quarter of 1978 viewership among a much smaller population. Plus the audience is aging, averaging close to 60 while kids are barely watching at all. In part, it’s due to the lack of lots of name players. Compared to the NFL’s Tom Brady and the NBA’s Lebron James, who have familiarity scores (the percent of Americans who know who they are) in the 70s, eight-time MLB All-Star Mike Trout’s score is 22. That’s yet another reason pace and action are imperative. Not to mention the MLB is losing American-born Black players. Whether it’s a lack of funding or structural obstacles — or because playing football is just more fun (we see you, Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes) — this year’s tally of African American MLB players was just 7 percent.
The MLB has made strides racially, breaking the color barrier 70-plus years ago with Jackie Robinson and more recently moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest voting restrictions. But otherwise, the league’s been relatively silent on racial injustice. After the murder of George Floyd, there was still a hesitancy to explicitly condemn the police, causing upset among many African American players. The league has initiatives in place for more inclusive hiring, courtesy of the Selig Rule that requires teams to “consider” diverse candidates for league jobs, but a wholesale culture shift? Not really happening since teams can hire special assistants outside of this rule, undermining the league’s ability to make tangible progress on diversity. And while some white players have spoken up in support of Black Lives Matter, baseball still has some of the most racist fans around. All of which amounts to a continued prescription for shrinking audiences — even if Babe Ruth may have been Black.
On the Plus Side? Star Power
Fernando Tatis Jr.
This 22-year-old San Diego Padres shortstop is considered the new face of baseball. He’s already secured a 14-year, $340 million contract and has a higher WAR — which stands for “wins above replacement” and summarizes a player’s total value to his team — in 150 games than anyone ever at his age. And, yeah, a swagger that jumps off the screen. Watch while he mocks Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer with this home run celebration. Tatis was born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, often referred to as the “Cradle of Shortstops,” which suggests his calling was predetermined. According to his father, baseball is the only thing Junior watched since opening his eyes. While the season is still early, Tatis is already tearing it up and has generated NL MVP buzz.
While this 23-year-old Venezuelan Atlanta Braves outfielder is making his presence felt, taking home the National League Rookie of the Year trophy back in 2018, he’s also become one of baseball’s most feared hitters, winning the Silver Slugger Award in 2019 and 2020. He’s also an excellent defenseman, having led the NL in steals. It explains his spine-straightening contract: an eight-year, $100 million deal — signed when he was just 21. He also comes from a family deeply rooted in professional baseball. His grandfather and father played in the minor leagues, he has one uncle and four cousins who played in the MLB, and his younger brother, Luisangel, is an infielder for the Texas Rangers’ organization.
“Robinson Canó with more speed” is how this Chicago White Sox second baseman was once described. He was even considered the number one prospect when he entered the sport in 2016. However, the Cuban native’s road to success has not been a cakewalk, and he even led the league in strikeouts in 2018. But that’s what makes Moncada worth a look: his ability to bounce back. The following year, he set career highs in almost every batting category and ranked third in batting average. This year mirrors those years: After catching COVID in 2020, he never quite got back to form this year, but he insists there are no lingering effects. A promising sign for the Sox.
“Sho Time,” as he’s been affectionately nicknamed, was a legend before coming over to the MLB from the Japanese pro circuit. The 6’4”, 200-pound, two-way star was said to be the second coming of Babe Ruth and, at first, lived up to the hype, winning 2018 Rookie of the Year his first season. But after he had Tommy John surgery in late 2018, the magic wore off. However, after having not pitched in two years, he’s made history and joined Babe Ruth as the only player to hit 15 home runs and pitch 50 innings in a season. In a season. And the legend stuff? It’s back: He has one of the fastest sprints from home to first, has thrown a 101 mph pitch and got wood on a 119 mph hit. Will this put asses in seats? Don’t doubt it.
They call him “Polar Bear,” and it’s not because he’s from a cold climate. In fact, he’s from Tampa, Florida, and of Spanish descent. But the New York Mets third basemen earned the name for his pure, raw power, breaking the major league record for the most home runs by a rookie in 2019 with 53. And his momentum has not slowed: He’s the fastest player ever to amass 70 homers. The Mets are loaded this year, and if they are to replicate their NL pennant season of six years ago, it will be behind his bat.
Baseball’s umps? Historically bad. And although America’s former favorite pastime is rooted in traditionalism, there were talks of adding automated strike zone technology in the 2020 season. It was first implemented in the 2019 summer Atlantic League via the “TrackMan,” a system that measures the flight of a baseball using a 3D Doppler radar. But it received mixed reviews for accuracy, speed in making calls and reliability. Still, with the game in dire need of a facelift, having the ability to map the data of a ball in flight onto the dimensions of each player’s strike zone will keep “robo-umps” in play.
Looming Labor War
The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2021 season bubbling with tensions over player compensation and owners’ bargaining tactics. While there has not been a lockdown since ’94/95, next season could be in question if there is no pathway to a resolution. With young talent cheaper and qualitatively competitive with the veterans, there’s been a trickle-down effect where a de-emphasis on free agents is affecting wages. The MLB Players Association expects to fight for an alternate salary structure to provide more just compensation but expects nothing short of a labor war with the league and owners.
Artificial Intelligence may very well be coming to the MLB. It’s been found to help with training players as it allows teams to collect player-specific data to improve performance and to identify different types of pitches, batting swings and so on. For example, when searching for prospects, AI helps scouts determine specifics down to a player’s angle of swing or velocity of pitching. The technology also helps hitters practice for the types of pitches they’ll face in upcoming games by recreating their opponents’ throws — while also using health data, from sleep patterns to injuries, to enhance player performance.