September 29, 2022

Dear MLB: Your Problem is Relevancy, Not Boredom (although that’s easily fixed, too.)

October 18, 2021 by · 6 Comments 

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.

Comments

6 Responses to “Dear MLB: Your Problem is Relevancy, Not Boredom (although that’s easily fixed, too.)”
  1. Steven says:

    Here, here! No number of bat flips, or slow motion replays of players celebrating, makes this marvelous game better, but it sure makes me bored and weary. Mr. Manfred take heed: there are plenty of baseball fans out there who are getting fed up, this author has articulated the heart of it. Please listen.

  2. Thank you, Steven. I hope Mr. Manfred takes heed, too!

  3. Well put. My kids (and soon my grandkids) know that I won’t leave a game early, because you never know when – even in a blowout game – you might see a triple play, or an inside-the-park home run, or the first major league hit of some rookie. Or two guys on your fantasy team collide at home plate. And best to arrive early. We took my oldest grandson to see the Phillies, great seats in the front row along the right field line, and in the top of the first, an opposing batter hit a twisting pop-up into foul territory, and there were Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, and Brad Miller, running full speed, directly at us. The ball dropped, maybe ten feet from us, and bounced toward us. Unfortunately, MLB, out of an abundance of caution, or a fit of paranoia, extended the protective netting all the way to the foul poles, so the ball bounced off, and Harper was unable to hand it to my grandson. All of which is to say there are so many special moments in any ballgame. You just have to be patient and observe. Ignore the spectacle and appreciate the nuances of the game. That’s pure entertainment.

  4. Exactly, Dirk! Well said.

  5. Frustrated in Texas says:

    I’m a third-generation, lifelong Texas Rangers fan who left the MLB and my beloved Rangers for good in 2016 because of how they treated the residents of Arlington, Texas over the years. I still love baseball and the story it tells, but I haven’t watched an MLB game since then and whenever I eventually have children I won’t be taking them to the soul-sucking, tax-payer abused indoor barn they call a stadium(s) that are located just a couple of miles from my home.

    My grandfather took my dad to Washington Senators games, before they moved to Texas. My earliest childhood memories include the old Turnpike Stadium and Buddy Bell at third base. It was a part of my childhood and a connection to home that I maintained despite 18 moves before my 18th birthday and travels across the world.

    In high school, I listened to the story on the radio every afternoon, carefully maintaining box scores while “doing my homework”. The voice that came through it’s speakers told me a story that I absorbed completely because it was an escape to a place of peace and calm during uncertainty and upheaval in my life.

    In my 20s, I realized that I could go watch the last couple of innings for free after I got off work and that’s how I ended up behind home plate one evening as they played more than 7 extra innings of shutout baseball and dueled to an outcome I no longer remember. The outcome didn’t matter, what mattered was that I was enjoying a game from a perspective my restaurant tips couldn’t normally afford.

    Ultimately, it came to an end because of greed, abuse and lies told by bought and paid for politicians who became mouthpieces for a silent ownership intent on the destruction of countless memories in service to profits. Taking an outdoor game indoors, burdening locals with a bill they can’t afford, while pricing out families from their source of entertainment… in essence cursing a franchise in a way that’s more tangible and real than some goat. I hesitate to say the Texas Rangers will never win a World Series, but I was still a naïve fan when the team teased us into believing anything was possible in 2011 before crushing our hearts in Game 6 in St. Louis.

    The coffin was nailed shut in 2016 and for me personally, I’ll never come back. Instead I’ll look to different forms of entertainment that are less likely to abuse me, steal my money and take me for granted, which is how I stumbled across this article, while researching a forgotten Negro League star’s statistics.

    Thank you for confirming my feelings of the demise and irrelevancy of the MLB. I don’t miss them and they obviously don’t care about me, my future children or even the future of their game.

  6. You’re very welcome, Frustrated in Texas! I think many of us are coming to the conclusion that Major League Baseball is not the same as baseball. I can get baseball here in the Shenandoah Valley by going to any number of college games and to the Valley Baseball League over the summer. The Rockingham County Baseball League is an adult league. I can ride my bike to a nearby little league field and several high schools are within a 15 minute car ride. And now, MLB is going to further damage itself with a lockout. I never thought I’d feel this way, but I don’t care. Do whatever, MLB, I’ve learned to get my baseball fix in other ways. Other, much less expensive ways!

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