For decades baseball has dawned the mantra of the United States’ national pastime, but why? Not to detract from the sport I’ve loved since childhood, but seriously why is it still being called the national pastime? Of the big four sports in the US, baseball now sits third in television ratings; long usurped at the summit by football and basketball, only hockey sits below it in many regards. A quick google search of this question will lead you to a nice little spiel about how the sport is so strongly rooted in the soul and foundation of American culture. But the fact of the matter is, baseball is struggling mightily in the popularity department.
How does the great game of baseball keep falling short to the behemoths known as the NFL and NBA? Many people just tend to chalk up the lack of interest to baseball being “boring to watch”, and the fact of the matter is those detractors aren’t totally wrong. For extended stretches of time I, a lifelong fan of the game, have recently found it tough to stay invested through 9 innings on television or in person. It’s easy to point fingers at the length of the game (a record 3.5 hours on average in 2017), but the NFL still manages a better audience for games despite them being almost 10 minutes longer on average. Then there’s the prototypical “it’s boring because there’s hardly any scoring”; but not only has the runs per game average in the Majors climbed to its highest point since the early 2000s, but the frequently low scoring sport of soccer has managed to captivate an international audience that is unparalleled in the sports and entertainment world.
I’ve narrowed it down at last, baseball’s biggest problem: Superstars.
Now some of you might be a little confused, but stick with me for a second here. What do the NFL and NBA have that the MLB lacks in spades? Plaster a photo of the New England Patriots’ Quarterback on a billboard anywhere in the country, and people will undoubtedly know that they’re looking at Tom Brady. Let the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Small Forward make a guest appearance on your grandmother’s favorite show, and she’ll tell you the next day she saw Lebron James on television. Those are just two examples of the countless football and basketball players who have evolved beyond the limits of “professional athlete” and into the realm of pop culture relevancy. Now here’s a fun little exercise for you, name a current baseball player who has done the same…
You can’t. Talk about your Mike Trouts and your Bryce Harpers all you want, and sure those guys are the brightest talents baseball has to offer, but I guarantee your grandmother would just think they’re an extra on her show.
Baseball has fine-tuned plenty of superstars in the past. We had Ruth, Mays, and most recently Jeter just to name a few. For over a century, baseball continued to turn elite athletes from run of the mill ball players into household names. Sadly, near the turn of the millennia. many of the games established superstars and ascending cultural icons had their names tarnished along with the game. The atrocity that was baseball’s steroid era claimed the reputation of the players involved as well as the integrity of the sport.
The MLB already has its fair share of talented athletes, as a matter of fact I’d go as far as to say even the most out-of-shape corner infielders in baseball today (looking at you Pablo Sandoval) could go toe-to-toe with the best of ’em 50+ years ago. Now at the dawn of a new era in professional baseball, the MLB needs these players to take over as the standard-bearers and faces of the game. For help in creating those superstars, we need only turn to the red-headed step child of the sports world, professional wrestling.
At its peak of pop culture relevance, the world of pro-wrestling managed to create cultural icons who have transcended the borders of what an athlete could be. How did Dwayne Johnson become the Rock? How did Steve Austin become Stone Cold? How did Mark Callaway become the Undertaker? A combination of the following:
- Frequent television exposure.
- Frequent winning.
- Character development.
Starting with the television exposure, baseball needs to make it a point to put their best and brightest on the national stage as frequently as possible. I understand that you want to give all 30 clubs a chance at the spotlight, but if you’re shooting for mainstream success as a league then your stars need to be out in full force in front of the biggest potential audiences. If you fear disenfranchising the fans of some of your less successful star-studded clubs allow me to bestow some wisdom onto you: to root for a losing team you need to be a hardcore fan, and if you’re a hardcore fan I guarantee you’re not watching your favorite team on ESPN. So let’s reserve those ESPN Sunday Night Baseball slots for some of the game’s big draws. Someone clicking through the channels isn’t going to stop clicking if they see two middle of the pack clubs like the Mets and Pirates, but maybe would be more inclined to watch if it was the star-studded Cubs and Dodgers going at it(This actually happened on May 28th of this year). And no the MLB Network games don’t count as a nationally televised game no matter how much you tell me they do. First of all if you tell the casual fan to put on MLB Network, they’re going to say “nah, I don’t pay for that package”, completely unaware that it’s free. Additionally the objective here should be to get as many wandering eyes as possible to lock in on your product; so the odds of that happening shrink exponentially if the channel with the baseball games is nowhere close to where they’re probably looking.
Now that we’ve put our best players on television some more, let’s work on that second part: making sure they win. Remember that trio of past MLB superstars I gave you, want to know a unifying factor between all of them? They’re all associated with winning! Now I’m not saying that all of the best talents in baseball should uproot and join the Yankees (I’m not saying they shouldn’t though either), but the fact is regardless of how talented an athlete is it’s hard to care about them if they’re not winning. It’s why Bryce Harper isn’t a superstar regardless of how good he might be at this game. His Nationals can’t win when it actually matters so why the hell should anybody invest in him? You know what the difference between Derek Jeter and Robin Yount is? One of them won five World Series Championships, and you didn’t have to Google his name…
Okay here’s the head-scratcher for a lot of you: Character Development. This isn’t professional wrestling, Clayton Kershaw doesn’t need to walk out to the mound with a microphone before his starts and hype up the crowd. But the truth is what attracts so many people to the world of sports is the stories that are told through the games. It’s knowing how long it had been since the Cubs won a World Series that made you tune into the 7-Game classic they had with the Indians in 2016; it’s knowing what a Championship would mean to the city of Houston after Hurricane Harvey that made you cheer for the Astros. With baseball, as is the case with all sports, you need to care about the athlete to invest in them. For so long it feels like baseball has held it’s players to such an uptight and rigorous standard, and the result is a bunch of white-meat boy next door characters who are told to just smile and be thankful despite the fact that they’re getting their asses handed to them. We need ballplayers we can relate to. We need ballplayers who show emotion. We need ballplayers who we can hate. The most fun baseball I watched in the last 12-months wasn’t played during the regular season or postseason…it was the World Baseball Classic. With no limitations on player interactions and behaviors, we saw guys get understandably excited for the things that happened on the field. Javier Baez became one of my favorite players, not for his play in the World Series a year ago, but because of that one play where he tagged out a would be base-stealer while pointing to Yadier Molina and laughing; it was real, it was honest, and I loved it. People are going to bash Giancarlo Stanton for his move to New York regardless of what he says, so why not play into it. Rather than trying to pander to opposing crowds that will vilify you regardless of what you do, embrace the villain role and turn it up to 11. Don’t shy away from the spotlight and potential stardom, seize the opportunity and become something that the game has been missing. I hope that when the Yankees visit Miami in mid-August, Stanton hits a blast, and before he jogs around the bases at the slowest pace imaginable he flips the bat and stares down his ex-teammates.
Call me crazy, but I think that baseball’s public relations problem is that they don’t relate to the public enough. People need compelling story lines in sports, it’s what keeps us coming back time and again. If the next generation of top ballplayers can’t step beyond just being good at what they do, then sadly the game we all love will only continue to slide down this slippery slope to obscurity.