We came out of the 89th All-Star Game talking about Mike Trout – not gushing about how transcendent a player he is, but debating, through pointed comments and statements, whether baseball does enough to market him and its other stars, and whether he does enough to market himself.
We came out of it talking about selfies and mic’d-up outfielders – not as a refreshing reminder of the varied and engaging personalities of the players, but as a symbol of the game moving further away from its traditions.
And we came out of it talking about strikeouts and home runs – not so much in the context of the breathtaking barrage of 98-mph fastballs from seemingly every pitcher who appeared, or the record-setting 10 home runs that were hit in the game, but as an indictment of the all-or-nothing style of play that has taken over the sport.
(We also came out of it, of course, talking about Josh Hader’s awful tweets as a 17-year-old, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Only in baseball, a sport given to deeper and more critical self-examination than any other, does this happen — and the inescapable conclusion coming out of Washington’s all-star extravaganza is that this sport, if not in crisis, is at least at a crossroads in regards to what it wants to be, as both a game played by gifted human beings and as an entertainment product and cultural institution.
If you don’t believe it, read the comments from Tuesday night’s game story on this website. The first few go something like this: “Fox … wasted our time with conversations with the outfielders.” “Inane chatter with the miked up ball players was embarrassing.” “Unfortunately this is what baseball has become – the HRs and stirkeouts.” “I turned it off in the sixth. More strikeouts than hits. All home runs. Boring baseball.” “… baseball is becoming rapidly unwatchable.”
We have more numbers and information to digest in baseball than ever, from the launch angles and exit velocities that are an intractable part of the broadcasts now, to the advanced analytics that are behind the rise in defensive shifts, to the advanced metrics that help us understand the game better than ever but that also are wielded by some to advance the notion there are black-and-white, unequivocal answers to the questions of who the MVP of the league is and who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
Numbers can tell us where the game has a problem: The league-wide batting average (.247) that is the lowest in 46 years. The fact there are more strikeouts than hits for the first time in history. The 5½-percent attendance drop that may or may not be wholly attributable to the April weather.
But the most important number for baseball, in the context of the current health of the game and its mission for the future, is 57.
That is the average age of a fan of Major League Baseball, according to data compiled by Sports Business Journal in 2016. And it is going in the wrong direction: In 2006, the average age was 53. For comparison’s sake, the average of an NBA fan, based on the 2016 data, is 42. For the NFL, 50. And for the NHL, 49.
When you visualize baseball’s audience growing old and gray – and, well, you know what typically follows that stage in a lifespan – you can begin to appreciate both the magnitude of baseball’s challenge and the urgency of the mission. The game doesn’t just want to connect with younger viewers and ticket-buyers; it absolutely has to.
And when you think of the controversial tweaks, changes and decisions that Commissioner Rob Manfred has made, and the ones he is still mulling, that context is crucial to understanding the motivations. Yes, the game is built on its traditions, and they are essential to its ethos, but to survive as a major sport, baseball needs to be faster-paced, more action-filled and – yes – more accessible and entertaining to younger generations that might have different viewpoints on what is or isn’t fun.
The trick, of course, is satisfying both sides. And maybe that’s impossible.
In a Q-and-A session Monday at the National Press Club, Manfred was asked about how baseball balances its outreach to newer millennial fans with its catering to older, established ones, and his answer was illuminating:
“I do think the tension you refer to — in terms of entertainment in the ballpark that captivates younger people and is interesting to them, on the one hand, which some people might see as a distraction or an annoyance on the other — is part of a real fundamental tension that we wrestle with every day in terms of the business or baseball,” Manfred said. “And that is: We never want to alienate that core fanbase we have and have always have had. On the other hand, we want to do everything we can to attract the people who are not part of that fanbase.
“As with every business, you need new customers. When you see things happening in the in-stadium experience that are a little different, that’s part of the clubs trying to innovative to capture that new fan base, which is really important to the future of our sport.”
Every sport, and every cultural institution for that matter, has wrestled to some degree with the balance of new versus old, progressives versus traditionalists, modernization versus status quo. And nearly every issue confronting baseball can be viewed in the context of that delineation.
If Manfred limits defensive shifts to create more base hits, he will have to change a rule on defensive positioning – stating simply that the pitcher must be on the mound, the catcher must behind the plate and the other fielders need only be in fair territory — that has existed for nearly a century and a half.
If he pushes the game’s stars to be more individualistic, seek out the spotlight and gobble up every endorsement dollar possible, he risks upsetting a baseball culture that still values team above all else.
But if Manfred does nothing, and if the sport stays static and stubborn – resisting change just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” – he already knows what will happen: The fanbase will keep getting older, and eventually die off, and baseball will slowly become irrelevant, then obsolete.