MLB Rule Changes Stoke Baseball Civil War But Don’t Address Game’s True Crisis
It's seemingly never easy and almost always feared.
That's true in most walks of life. But when it comes to sports, there's no place where change is less welcome than Major League Baseball.
That's because MLB's history runs far deeper than that of its contemporaries among the professional sports leagues. The first major-league baseball game was played over 150 years ago. For context, that was before automobiles, back when the preferred modes of transportation were horse-drawn carriages, trains, and steamboats. Electricity wasn't yet a commodity. And the first real radio station was still 50 years away.
MLB is most resistant to change because, despite what the NFL's marketing apparatus says, baseball truly is America's game. Yes, football long ago replaced baseball as America's pastime, but baseball is our first true love. And, despite how badly things go, you always remember your first.
Baseball was the first uniquely American sport to go national (and eventually international). It will forever be synonymous with America. Hell, it's so American that it's referenced in one of the most well-known and time-honored adages about the most-American that exist. Pretty meta.
But nothing lasts forever, and baseball is no exception.
Times have changed. We live in a day and age of insatiable demand for instant gratification. It permeates all facets of life today. We need information so badly that when news breaks, even before the most basic of facts are available, the media is on the scene reporting live with no real details to share. The preferred method of communication nowadays is text, because it's more rapid than an actual phone call or face-to-face meeting. The same is true for workspaces, many of which have gone remote/virtual.
Those chickens have come home to roost for sports, too. It's why the NFL, NBA, and NHL all have made wholesale changes over the last decade or so to up the action ante. And now, it's baseball's turn.
But, true to its roots, MLB has long resisted that gathering tide. Until now, when baseball's Powers That Be have given in and, in so doing, have sacrificed much of what made baseball unique. Take time, for example. Baseball is the only major sport that doesn't rely on a clock. Or was, I should say.
MLB's freshly implemented pitch clock has thrown its fanbase into utter chaos. Baseball purist hate it, of course, as any sort of timing mechanism is anathema to the game and its long, proud history. Younger generations — present company included, by the way — like the change because it creates a rhythm and pace heretofore nonexistent on the baseball diamond.
There is no grey area on this issue, though. It's one or the other, much like it is for baseball's other rule changes in 2023 — larger bases and a ban on the defensive shift.
MLB has made these sweeping changes, in its own words, to improve the pace of play. Many think this is all about shortening game times, which were averaging about three hours and 10 minutes in 2022. That's not the real goal, although it has been a positive byproduct at least so far; Spring training games are averaging about two hours and 40 minutes in 2023.
Baseball is trying to create the same action and engender the same excitement that its major North American professional sports league counterparts have learned to create and engender. The reasoning is sound: MLB viewership and attendance are down nearly across the board. That's alarming enough, but within the context of burgeoning numbers (and revenue) for the NFL and NBA, it's even worse.
Further compounding matters is the fact that MLB's fans are the oldest of the major professional sports. MLB fans are 57 years old on average, and as they grow even older baseball's problems become more acute. Because the game simply is not resonating with the general public, and it certainly doesn't appeal to younger, emerging demos.
Reasonable minds can agree that MLB's decision to take action is the right move. But are the strategy, scope, and focus of that action sound?
Put another way: Does implementing a pitch clock and other rule changes to foster a livelier pace of play actually and substantively address MLB's outright crisis of not reaching younger audiences and converting them into MLB fans?
The answer is an obvious no.
I personally love that MLB is legislating the mindless, idiosyncratic adjustment of batting gloves, helmets, and crotches out of the game. Baseball is noticeably better to me when a pitcher can't spend five minutes making throw after throw to first base, ostensibly to hold a runner closer to the bag, but really just to stall. I also enjoy the fact that batters who rip 115-mile-per-hour screechers to their pull side will no longer be automatic outs by way of the entire infield occupying that portion of the dirt.
But all of that means nothing to the non-baseball fan. It matters to me, someone who's been watching his entire life and will continue to do so. But so what? MLB could already count me among its regulars.
A better expenditure of resources toward addressing MLB's extreme deficiency of younger fans would be to actually market its most valuable commodity — its star players.
Do a little experiment on your own. Sit down tonight and turn on any channel not named Lifetime or Hallmark. Watch for half an hour and take note of each time there's a commercial featuring an athlete. Odds are you'll see at least a couple of football players (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, or even retired players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) and a couple of basketball players (Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James, or former players like Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley, who have been out of the game for one and two decades, respectively).
Hell, you'll probably even see some college sports stars, courtesy of Name, Image, and Likeness and your neighborhood purveyor of brutal local commercials.
How many times, though, did you see Mike Trout of the L.A. Angels, who's widely regarded as the best all-around baseball player of this generation? How many commercials featured MLB's new home-run king Aaron Judge, who also happens to play for the sport's biggest brand, the New York Yankees?
This is just one example — but an effective one — of MLB's biggest shortcoming. This league does not turn its best players into stars. And that matters, especially when you're trying to curry mainstream appeal like the NFL and NBA do with relative ease. For MLB, this is an issue that's very quickly becoming a matter of life or death.
The rule changes certainly are controversial. I like them, both as a fan and also as a sports radio personality, because it provides me with great content. But all MLB is doing here is dividing its core fans along generational lines while completely neglecting its emergency of irrelevancy among younger people.