If you’re reading this, chances are you love baseball. And — at least for the most part — you love it just the way it is, quirks and all. The four-hour Yankees-Red Sox marathons, the strategic use of the LOOGY, the inscrutable rules that dictate a balk. Seriously, what the heck even is a balk? It’s all part of the anachronistic yet timeless product that America’s pastime has been delivering to fans for 143 years.
Yet these days, there are fewer and fewer of us fans showing up to the ballpark. We millennials — yes, I am one of those abominations — really are too busy scrolling through Spongebob memes to sit through three pitching changes in the seventh inning of an 9-3 game on a rainy night in May, especially if we have to fork over a hundred bucks apiece for the privilege. Importantly, baseball fans aren’t tuning out, as many have suggested. Rather, they’re dying off. Take a gander at this graph if you don’t believe me:
Perhaps it’s okay that baseball is transitioning into a more niche activity, enjoyed primarily by traditionalists and math nerds. After all, who needs to be popular when you can be Trevor Bauer instead? Long term, however, this would spell doom for the game, since premier athletes would increasingly follow in the footsteps of Kyler Murray and opt to play other sports. The lightning speed, inhuman power, and mind-boggling coordination that define baseball would soon disappear as the talent pool evaporated.
The unfortunate truth is that casual viewers know just a handful of outspoken — and frankly overrated — stars like Bryce Harper, while the game’s most elite talents chase down century-old records in obscurity. Both football and basketball have benefited from having the stud quarterback or the flashy point guard dominate the action, allowing them to produce more highlights and attract a larger following. Meanwhile, baseball’s best are involved in a mere one-ninth of the gameplay, during which they are barred by its unspoken rules from showing almost any personality, under the penalty of a 97 mph fastball to the wrist. Perhaps that’s why not a single baseball player appeared on ESPN’s list of the 20 most famous athletes of 2019.
Of course, the NFL and NBA don’t have a limitless supply of well-known players, either. Ask 1,000 people who the Hornets’ backup center is, and I’m willing to bet you’ll get 999 blank stares, with the one correct answer coming from Bismack Biyombo himself. The real differentiator, then, is that football and basketball stars shine far brighter than baseball’s biggest batsmen.
From an off the field perspective, MLB could foster its brand names by easing its famously stringent copyright enforcement online, as well as by making a concerted effort to reach out to a younger audience. On the field, it must be willing to sacrifice tradition in the name of affording its marquee talents 1) more room to have fun and 2) more opportunities to impact the final result. I know it’s a team sport, but something is wrong when Mike Trout — arguably the most statistically dominant player ever — has never won a playoff game.
To that end, and at the risk of getting absolutely pilloried in the comments, here’s how baseball should change — a phrase as sacrilegious to many as “New Coke” or “Jar Jar Binks.” Collectively, they represent only the first step toward the game’s necessary future.
The “super pinch hitter”
New rule: Allows teams to bat anyone they want with two outs in the ninth, assuming that player has not already hit in the inning. Unlike a traditional pinch hitter, the super pinch hitter can already be in the game, in which case he swaps places in the lineup with whomever he replaced, or have already been removed from the game, in which case he’s treated as a normal substitute.
Imagine the intrigue it would create if Aaron Judge was the final batter of near-all Yankees games — rather than, say, Austin Romine or Kendrys Morales — and faced off against the other team’s best pitcher. Just as fans love seeing LeBron James pull up for the buzzer beater against Kevin Durant, or Tom Brady throw the winning touchdown to Julian Edelman, so too should baseball’s elite take center stage when it matters most.
For one, this would create endless drama, as managers would have to publicly identify their best hitter. It would also ensure that key players remained in the game in extra innings, unlike traditional substitutions that burn through a number of starters and force teams to play backups. Plus, fans would leave the park on a great note, since the last at-bat would often be the most interesting one. This change is a no-brainer from where I stand.
Sure, it would add another asterisk to historical comparisons. But given that baseball has already experienced the end of segregation, the introduction of PEDs, an extension to the season length, the dawn of free agency, better nutrition and training, chartered flights, the designated hitter, and the list goes on, this would hardly be the first time traditionalists moaned about something ruining the sport forever.
The “super pinch runner”
New rule: Allows teams one opportunity — at any point in the game — to temporarily insert a pinch runner and then re-insert the pinch-ran-for player. The super pinch runner must come from the bench and would remain eligible to return to the game at a later point.
In an era criticized for its lack of movement on the base paths, this change would go a long way toward revitalizing the steal. It would also puts fans in the seats by enabling slow, aging superstars — e.g., Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera — to slightly extend their careers, since their speed wouldn’t be as much of a liability. Plus, and this is the biggest benefit, it would let sluggers in their primes, like Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit, remain in the game during the later innings. Another no-brainer.
The “super defensive replacement”
New Rule: Allow teams one inning per game to temporarily insert a replacement defender, and then re-insert the replaced player. The super defensive replacement would still be eligible to return to the game at a later point.
Same logic as above. All of these changes introduce more strategy into the game, not less. And crucially, they don’t alter the fundamental character of baseball — they merely allow the players who excel at each of its facets to do so more often, more decisively, and with more of the world watching.
How should baseball modernize?
The super pinch hitter
The super pinch runner
The super defensive replacement
All of the above, Commissioner Goldberg
It shouldn’t. Millennials, am I right?