Major League Baseball’s Identity Crisis

New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) and teammates run out of the dugout at the start of a spring-training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., March 23, 2019. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Has America’s pastime changed, or have we?

‘I  try to watch a baseball game, and I find it very difficult to be able to watch today.”

It’s the sort of comment you’d expect to hear from the average teenager, part of a generation that grew up with screens easily accessible from an early age, raised on the quick-fix entertainment of highly realistic video and computer games, fed a steady diet of movies that employ constant action and CGI to keep the audience hooked for two and a half hours at a time.

But that quote didn’t come from a young person expressing distaste for the slow pace of Major League Baseball. It came from one of the game’s greatest pitchers, Hall of Famer Rich Gossage. “We could sit here and talk all day about the way the game has been changed, and not in a good way,” Gossage added during an interview last fall. “It just breaks my heart to see the changes that have been made.”

If you listen to the people who occupy the corner offices at MLB, those tweaks have been entirely necessary, and more alterations loom on the horizon if they get their way. They want to adapt the game to keep up with our fast-paced times, so the sport doesn’t get left behind. And while it remains unclear whether those changes have effectively attracted younger viewers, they evidently have not gone unnoticed by baseball’s most dedicated fans.

Nearly every public discussion of the sport today seems to involve a lament about either declining viewership or how the game needs to be radically restructured to cater to bored and impatient observers. But the most striking thing about these comments isn’t their pervasiveness; it’s that they’re coming from MLB executives, and just about no one else.

For the most part, baseball fans — who actually show up to games and continue subscribing to expensive cable packages to watch their favorite teams, even as MLB policies make it frustratingly difficult to tune in to games online (a problem the league might address if it actually cared about declining viewership) — aren’t the ones complaining about pace of play. Nor are they the ones asking for a whole host of changes to “fix” it.

If baseball is having an identity crisis, it’s not because fans have changed and want baseball to change with them, but because the people in charge of the game insist on altering it to attract new viewers. Perhaps at first glance it sounds like a reasonable sentiment, and even those who love baseball are, of course, concerned that younger Americans might not appreciate the sport.

But few people who don’t already appreciate baseball will be induced to watch it, let alone learn to love it, by the imposition of a pitch clock or stricter pitcher-substitution rules. At the same time, the problem of ratings might not be quite as drastic as we’ve been led to believe. Here’s what Forbes reported on the subject last fall:

Attendance for Major League Baseball was down in for [sic] 2018 for the regular season, but that’s not the case when it comes to one critical facet of television. Ratings for MLB games in primetime on the regional sports networks (RSNs) that host them show them up slightly for the 2018 regular season compared to 2017. . . . More importantly, baseball continues to rank incredibly strong in the television ecosphere compared to other content in primetime during the spring and summer months.

“When looking at pay-TV, baseball does better still,” Forbes went on. “Twenty-four of the RSNs hosting MLB teams rank #1 on cable TV in their market in primetime. Baseball ranks #1 in cable prime in every U.S. MLB market except Miami on the regional sports networks. All told, MLB saw ratings increase by 2%, and average households increase by 1% compared to 2017.”

Yet this myth of the lost viewer continues to plague every conversation about why 21st-century baseball needs to catch up with the times. During the winter of 2017, pointing to lower television ratings, MLB executives mulled changes such as “raising the strike zone, limiting the amount of time a manager has to decide whether to make a replay-review challenge and allowing batters to proceed direct to first base in lieu of standing in the box for four balls during an intentional walk.”

The last of these proposed changes was implemented in the major leagues last season, to the chagrin even of players themselves. Just last month, meanwhile, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred — who shortly after taking over the leadership position remarked that baseball stands in danger of “losing a generation of fans” — previewed even more changes that he hopes to persuade the Players Association to adopt:

In addressing a number of topics with reporters at the conclusion of the Owners Meetings in Orlando, Fla., Manfred expressed appreciation for the “responsive proposal” MLB received last week to the league’s proposal about a pitch clock and a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers within a single inning. But he also stressed the difference between pace-of-play changes and proposals like the universal DH and changes to the amateur Draft that have larger service time and financial ramifications.

There’s a faction of baseball fans who never want to see any changes to their sport — many still mourn the decades-old decision to introduce the designated hitter in the American League. But for even less diehard fans, it isn’t clear what problem these alterations are meant to solve. If anything, fans are more concerned about rising rates of strikeouts and home runs than they are about pace of play, yet these concerns receive comparatively little attention.

Baseball’s identity crisis exists not because the game is ill-suited to modern times, but because the people in charge care more about catering to people who will never love baseball — no matter how fast the game might fly — than they do about satisfying the fans they already have.

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