On Opening Day last season, Bryce Harper addressed reporters wearing a cap with the four words “Make Baseball Fun Again” written across the front. These four words summarize one side of the growing culture war in the MLB. On one side of the argument there are baseball purists who ardently defend unwritten rules and professionalism. On the other side, are baseball’s newcomers who view these archaic “rules” as nothing more than a hindrance to the sports entertainment value. From their standpoint, limiting freedom of expression is driving a wedge between the MLB and the next generation of fans. This concern is especially evident when comparing the stoicism that MLB players are expected to maintain compared to the liveliness of celebrations in the NBA and NFL. At the end of the day, professional athletes are entertainers, and for prospective baseball fans, it is hard to generate enthusiasm for a great play when the player himself seems indifferent. If the league continues to stifle outward passion for the game, the next generation will migrate towards sports that allow players to more freely display their enthusiasm.
Anybody who watched this year’s World Baseball Classic witnessed just how riveting a game of baseball can be when players are unshackled from the pervasive no-fun culture of the MLB. In an exhibition tournament that supposedly “nobody cares about”, passion from players from across the world overflowed. There were no financial incentives for these players, just unadulterated excitement and national pride. While this outpouring of emotion was seen mainly in Latin American players at the outset of the tournament, it was clear that their passion for the game was infectious. By the end of the tournament, even the otherwise poker-face American players were showing signs of enjoying themselves. With baseball continuously expanding internationally, the MLB needs to welcome the panache and flashiness of other cultures rather than discouraging a brand of baseball that allows emotion and celebration.
The MLB’s cultural prohibition on fun not only creates an environment that is resistant to the more animated styles of other countries, it also discourages certain demographics of the American youth. While the MLB has made admirable attempts to extend their outreach to inner cities through programs such as RBI, the game is not ingrained in fabric of these communities like basketball and football. While the decline in cultural significance certainly contributes to the decline of baseball in inner cities, there are also concerns that the game has simply become too expensive for less affluent Americans to play. The increasing costs of travel ball leagues make competitive youth baseball unaffordable for Americans who are just trying to put food on the table. Furthermore, the limited amount of scholarship money allocated to college baseball programs also make playing college baseball financially unfeasible. Unlike NCAA basketball and football, full scholarships are practically non-existent in college baseball. So while a talented player from the inner city may be offered a scholarship covering 70% of his expenses, the player may still be unable to pay the rest of the tuition. While the growing cost of playing baseball in the United States is limiting the opportunity for inner city kids, the pervasive culture of discouraging showmanship does not help make the game any more appealing.
Many people believe only way to broaden baseball’s appeal is implementing rule changes that will accelerate the pace of play. Since Manfred became the commissioner, he has insisted on implementing rules that can speed up pace of play. Some of these proposals are easy remedies that can increase the game’s entertainment value; others try to fix rules that have never been contested throughout the first century and a half of the game’s existence. Limit extended mound meetings by pitching coaches? Fine. Take away needless intentional walk pitches? Fair enough. But putting a clock on a pitcher between pitches? Absolutely not. The game of baseball is beautiful because it operates at a pace more leisurely than freneticism of the modern day world. The baseball field is a refuge from the instant gratification that defines modern life; a sanctuary from deadlines and obligations. The ballpark is one of the only places left in an accelerating world where we can take a deep breath and slow life down. Jeopardizing this temple of timelessness with cheap rule alterations does not usher in a new generation of fans, it alienates the fans you already have.
Overhauling a culture that has persisted for over one hundred years will not be easy, but with events such as the World Baseball Classic and superstar players such as Bryce Harper spearheading this movement, the path seems less arduous. To be clear, the MLB is not in any imminent danger as revenues continue to increase and the league’s global reach is rapidly expanding. Ultimately, the sport is heading in a positive direction and implementing significant rule changes would be taking a risk with consequences far worse than the potentially incremental benefits. All in all, we don’t need to do anything to make this game fun other than allow it to be.