Dear Major League Baseball,
Much has been written recently about your “boredom problem.” Longer games with less action have resulted in declining attendance and declining television ratings, but the solution to your on-field problem is so simple that a Little Leaguer could tell you what it is, whereas a board room full of consultants obviously cannot:
Deaden the ball.
Don’t change the rules, change the dynamics of the game’s most basic piece of equipment.
You want more defensive plays? Lessen the chance that the ball disappears over the fence. Maybe reduce those exit velocities so that batted balls don’t go screaming past fielders at 108 miles per hour. Perhaps then, teams will rediscover baseball’s most important offensive strategy: Don’t make an out. If a batter is guaranteed to not make an out by playing pepper with the 45 feet of open dirt over there by third base, for example, then play pepper with the dirt. You can’t make pitchers throw the ball with less velocity nor make batters hit the ball with less force, but you can change the ball so it doesn’t resemble the Road Runner when it is finally put in play.
Baseball suffers a much deeper problem, however, than long games with lots of strike outs. It is losing its cultural relevancy.
Commissioner Manfred, you and your merry band of marketing consultants try to sell baseball as spectacle, when it is not. Certainly, there are bursts of the spectacular that take place on the field in almost every game, but those bursts are always within the context of the game itself. Baseball is story. Every season is a story. Every game is a story. Story involves plot and one of baseball’s beauties is that fans never know when the climax of that story will occur. It might take place in the first inning, but we can’t be 100% certain until the story concludes. The climax may be a mad dash from first to home on a double in the gap in the bottom of the 9th, but it might have occurred in the fifth inning when one team loaded the bases with none out, but didn’t score. The best games feature rising action on almost every pitch, but even those 12-0 blowouts allow the fan to appreciate the construction of the game. Watching the third baseman set himself on every pitch, for example, is akin to reading a book whose plot is weak, but is well-written nevertheless.
You powers there at MLB understand none of this. Football is spectacle. In fact, it has become such a spectacle that it is marketed more as “sports entertainment” like World Wrestling Entertainment than as sport. If football was a story, it wouldn’t interrupt itself with endless replays and tedious timeouts. It wouldn’t try to stretch its one hour product into three and a half hours. Football can get away with this, because spectacle can be sustained once a week during the fall and winter. It is impossible to sustain it every night of the spring and summer.
Thankfully, baseball by its very nature will never be that and it should quit trying to be that if it wants to maintain any relevancy. The baseball poets, such as W. P. Kinsella, have composed lyrics about the pastoral nature of the game; that it permits conversation and fellowship; that it permits, indeed, insists, that we slow the pace of our lives, sit back and enjoy the green grass, the summer sunsets, the olfactory awesomeness of a grilled hot dog. This is what baseball provides far better than any other sport, and as Kinsella might say, it is what we need now more than ever. It is what you, Commissioner Manfred, should be selling.
Put another way, baseball has the capacity to make us mentally and spiritually healthier. Baseball marketers do not have to create this need in order to sell their product, this need already exists in us and the need is growing exponentially as the world grows more chaotic.
No, MLB, you don’t need more marketing consultants, you need to bring back your best sales people; you know, the ones you have been tossing aside the past couple of decades in your attempts to spectacularize the game. There are no better salesmen of baseball than dads and moms and grandpas and grandmas. It was my mom who was a huge baseball fan and it was her stories about the minor league Baltimore Orioles of her childhood that fascinated me. At 16, she was in love with Don Heffner—I still have the scrapbook in which she pasted his eventual wedding announcement. My parents took me to Game 3 of the 1966 World Series and, even though he wasn’t pitching, Mom made sure that I took a good look at Sandy Koufax so that I could say that I at least saw him in the flesh.
I was only nine years old in 1966, but baseball was an entry into adulthood. Perhaps, not authoritatively, but on this one topic at least, I could speak as an adult. Adults also spoke to me, and almost every city had that one avuncular voice that would come through the radio, welcoming me to Memorial Stadium or Tiger Stadium or Wrigley Field. Here was an adult—in my case, Chuck Thompson in Baltimore—talking to me, telling me the story of the game. Neither he, nor any of the other marvelous voices of major league baseball, bored me with statistics that I’d need a calculator and a master’s degree to interpret. They were human beings having a human conversation, and not verbal translators of the Statcast machines. Someone once looked at Phil Rizzuto’s scorecard and became puzzled by the notation, “w.w.” When asked, Phil replied that it stood for “wasn’t watching.” Today’s radio broadcast booth is often packed with so many analogous voices all spouting statistics in their, I’m an insider smarminess, that I can’t tell one from another. Give me the guy who wasn’t watching and who tells me a story (maybe fictional, but who cares?) about that guy from Jersey City who just caught a foul ball behind the Yankees’ dugout. Mr. Manfred, one story-telling uncle, whether in the booth or sitting beside you, will sell your product better than a dugout full of statisticians.
The biggest problem for baseball the game is Major League Baseball the corporation. The latter does not understand the former’s most important selling points and that is why the game is losing its relevancy.
I hope this note reaches the right board room or luxury suite, and I hope it stings. I hope it hurts. I hope some baseball executive somewhere sits up and takes notice of someone who is writing on behalf of a bunch of someones, all of whom really care about our game. Frankly, Major League Baseball, you’re a mess, but in the end, this is a love letter.
~~Austin Gisriel is the author of Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience.