When the NBA Finals wrap up in early June, it’s supposed to be the MLB’s time of year to shine. The ideal scenario (for the league and those worried about its success) is that with football’s time not starting until the very end of the summer, and the seemingly endless basketball season finally having come to an end, baseball’s season would be in full swing. Playoff races are set, the All-Star game and trade deadline are on the horizon, and America’s pastime should be dominating headlines.
That has not been the case this year. First, shenanigans at the Warriors’ championship celebrations and LeBron’s post-loss social media presence had the sports world abuzz.
Then the NBA draft gave us more Ball family inspired headlines. Follow that up with Paul George and Chris Paul both getting traded, and hectic free agency that included Gordon Hayward’s Fourth of July waffling; put it all together and the NBA has dominated more headlines its offseason than it did through most of the regular season. Baseball is still in the backseat.
From one angle, it’s hard to know how much better of a situation the MLB could be in for attracting fans this season. Home runs are at an all-time high. The Yankees have an incredibly exciting, superhero-like young star in Aaron Judge. Two teams in the top-10 media markets are on historic winning paces (Dodgers and Astros). The amount of young talent is immense. The All-Star game was won on a go-ahead home-run in the 10th inning! How much more can you want?
Well, all of that is nice, but the MLB hasn’t created these circumstances, it’s stumbled into them. And in terms of concrete action, the league hasn’t made it that easy on itself.
Take a look at what basketball is in the news for most recently. “NBA changes timeout rules to improve game flow,” the league proudly proclaims from its own website. The story was picked up everywhere, and for the most part, was widely celebrated.
The league already puts out the most entertaining product in sports (I consider that a fully objective statement; basketball has never been my favorite sport) and made a good faith effort to fix one of its few flaws: momentum-grinding timeout calls that hurt what should be incredibly exciting game finishes.
This is the exactly the sort of proactive structural change a league should be making to ensure its future success. Consistent little tinkering like this is a far better alternative than making massive changes only as a problem becomes glaring. It’s getting hard to shake the feeling that baseball is headed down this path.
I don’t want to go full alarmist here. If you hear someone talking about the MLB not existing in twenty years or falling out of being a top-three U.S. sport, you should walk the other way. The game is in excellent financial shape, and even the concern that it’s national TV ratings were sinking are somewhat ameliorated by the record ratings for last year’s World Series.
But the game’s utter disappearance from the news cycle is legitimately worrying. And this isn’t the plot of some editors hell bent on destroying the MLB for some reason, any amount of time spent on Twitter will confirm that baseball simply doesn’t hold the same cultural relevancy as basketball or football at this point.
It doesn’t help matters that baseball diehards consider every single peculiarity of the game utterly sacred (I’m no exception).
It’s going to be painful for serious baseball fans, and not every idea is necessarily going to work out, but if we want baseball to thrive for the long-haul, I think we need to embrace tinkering. Let’s have one-year experiments. Let’s enforce the pitch clock.
I’m no big fan on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, but I certainly don’t envy the position he’s in. His proposal to prevent 15-inning marathons by starting every extra inning with a runner on second drew the ire of every fan and writer I know. But somewhere in the 13th inning of Saturday’s Red Sox-Yankee game, a matchup I always watch religiously, I found myself revisiting the idea and looking on it a lot more favorably.
Let’s quit being so precious about every little thing. Let’s take back the news cycle.