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Do baseball fundamentals drive younger fans away?

Willie Keeler’s famous “Hit ‘em where they ain’t” quote might not be so enticing to kids in today’s world.

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is boring. It’s too slow, not enough exciting stuff happens, and players who show any passion or enthusiasm are told to shut up. These are some of the explanations as to why baseball has not been a hit with millennials, something Major League Baseball is working hard to address.

In recent years, bat flips have been a lightning rod for controversy. Baseball traditionalists argue that bat flippers are too selfish and should put the team first instead of drawing attention to themselves. New school fans argue that the old school fans are too stuck in their ways and should learn to adapt. This is a worthwhile discussion to have, don’t get me wrong. But in my opinion, bat flips only scratch the surface when it comes to baseball’s generation gap.

When I was in Little League, my friends and I were told the importance of putting the success of the team ahead of personal accolades. We were told to stick to the fundamentals instead of trying to be flashy. Having a level swing and lacing a single up the middle was considered to be the epitome of good, fundamental hitting. Even when I was very young, maybe eight or nine years old, my teams would bunt in order to manufacture runs.

From the minute I started watching baseball, I was hooked. I could have bunted every single time up in Little League and loved every minute of it. But when I try to think from the perspective of someone who is indifferent to the game, it seems incredibly boring. Let’s say the average Little Leaguer plays 25 games per year. We’ll assume they average three plate appearances per game, since Little League games are usually six innings. As a millennial with a short attention span, devoting that much time for 75 plate appearances per year already seems like a tough sell. Wasting precious at-bats trying to hit grounders or bunting would only make it harder to generate long-term interest in baseball.

Wait a second, some might say. This is what my generation doesn’t understand. Kids today have grown up getting participation trophies and being told that it’s not about winning, but having fun. They have to realize that they have to put the team first sometimes, and not everything is about them. I can honestly see the merits of both sides of this debate. I am not trying to delegitimize either side, but I don’t think winning and individual achievement are mutually exclusive in baseball, especially at a young age.

A’s GM Billy Beane famously told his Moneyball teams to stop bunting, as it didn’t make sense to sacrifice an out. Beane crunched the numbers against Major League caliber pitchers and defenses and determined that bunting wasn’t an effective strategy. Believe it or not, Little Leaguers aren’t quite as good as MLB players. Little League pitchers will walk two batters per inning, while infielders make errors on routine plays. From a baseball perspective, teaching kids to bunt at a young age probably doesn’t make much sense.

The same can be said for encouraging kids to go for seeing-eye singles. Recently, big league hitters are starting to reject the idea that they should put the ball on the ground. Nationals’ phenom Trea Turner has said that he outright ignores coaches who tell him to hit grounders, something Blue Jays 3B Josh Donaldson agrees with. Statistically speaking, we’ve known for a long time that line drives are the most effective kind of batted ball, while physics tells us that the level swings coaches preach about aren’t actually so useful.

To invoke another old school adage, triples are the most exciting play in baseball. If we want to get future generations involved, we should challenge the notion of what constitutes fundamentally sound baseball. Personally, my fondest memories from playing baseball are from backyard home run derbies, not from organized Little League games. If kids are told to focus on hitting the ball as hard as possible instead of hitting a grounder up the middle, it might make things more exciting for them.

When it comes to the pace of play issue, I’m reminded of another saying: time flies when you’re having fun. I love the game of baseball, so I have no problem watching a three-hour or four-hour game. I’m not the biggest football fan, and I find short interruptions like challenges and timeouts that are used to ice the kicker to be agonizing. Don’t get me started on the last two minutes of a close basketball game, when intentional fouls come into play. The point is: if we want to make it fun to watch baseball, we should start by making it more fun to play baseball.