Let's acknowledge that Major League Baseball isn't completely stuck in the past. It's gotten its share of modern upgrades, from 24 new ballparks in 25 years to the gift-that-keeps-giving excellence of MLB Advanced Media to even (cue sarcastic tone) instant replay.
But one thing that still needs a modern upgrade is the personality of the game itself. For this, the trick will be to allow players who'd rather play a kid's game than a gentleman's game to do so.
A good way to start would be by giving bubbles a chance.
You see, there's this thing that the Los Angeles Dodgers do to celebrate home runs. When the guy who hit the homer returns to the dugout, a battery-operated bubble-blowing machine gets turned on, dancing commences and fun is had.
What you see is a bunch of dudes acting like kids playing a kid's game. It's hard to watch without also feeling like a kid, and it's become hard to talk about Dodgers dingers on social media without referencing bubbles in some way.
These are things that should please MLB. As such, it's only natural that the Dodgers were told to knock it off.
That's the story according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, who reported Wednesday that MLB Executive VP/Master of Discipline Joe Torre "advised" the Dodgers to retire the bubble machine.
Since the bubble machine was present (and ultimately active) in the Dodgers dugout Wednesday night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, either the Dodgers ignored Torre or simply defied him. But regardless of what kept the bubbles blowing, that Torre's request even happened says a lot.
Cue Jesse Spector of The Sporting News:
Indeed. Whenever the line is drawn between "gentleman's game" and "kid's game," baseball all too often perpetuates its old-fashioned reputation by siding with the former. Typically for the sake of upholding the notion that the game must be played "The Right Way."
Granted, some parts of the unwritten "The Right Way" code shouldn't change. Running up the score in blowouts. Sliding with your spikes up. And especially—looking in your direction, Arizona Diamondbacks—not trying to hurt guys with retaliatory beanballs.
But then there's the stuff about respecting the game. Beyond that apparently applying to dugout bubble machines, its other applications mainly concern players who dare to show a little personality.
Chris Archer just got bent out of shape over David Ortiz admiring a long home run. We've also seen Madison Bumgarner join a list of people who have ever taken exception to a Yasiel Puig bat flip, and Gerrit Cole actually picked a fight with Carlos Gomez over a bat flip. A couple years ago in 2011, we even saw John Lackey drill Francisco Cervelli merely for clapping after a home run.
Not that it's all pitchers versus hitters. It can go the other way too, such as when Jarrod Dyson whined about Chris Perez's tribute to John Cena in 2012, or when David Dellucci didn't appreciate it when Joba Chamberlain acted like, well, Joba Chamberlain in 2008.
The message: Respecting the game means showing good sportsmanship, defined here to mean playing the game without emotion. Because, you know, it's clearly too much to ask to define true sportsmanship to mean having the ability to let such things slide.
It doesn't have to be that way. Just imagine if it were the other way around. Imagine a version of baseball where displays of emotion serve to entertain rather than to provoke.
Actually, you don't have to imagine. We've seen it happen.
Take what happened a couple weeks ago, when Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, ahem, borrowed Fernando Rodney's arrow-shooting celebration after getting to him:
Typically used to celebrate saves, Rodney had gone to his arrow-shooting celebration after escaping an eighth-inning jam. Trout and Pujols clearly wanted him to know that he had spoken (or shot) too soon.
Rodney could have raised hell, either on the field or after the fact. Instead, he let it slide.
“They got emotional, maybe. They beat me. That’s all right," he told The Seattle Times.
For their part, neither Pujols nor Trout indicated there was any malice in their mockery. As Trout put it, all they were doing was playing the game.
“It was spur of the moment,” Trout said. “It’s baseball. We’re having fun. It was a pretty exciting inning.”
Damn right. And a newsworthy inning, too. What would have been just another rally became headline-worthy material for this site and many others, all for the sake of highlighting a fun bit of theater.
Since such theatrics are generally frowned upon in baseball, the headlines have a tendency to be negative when theatrics happen. As sampled above, the headlines tend to tell tales of curmudgeons stifling entertainers, thus signalling to the unaffiliated that baseball is a fun-free zone.
And that's not the look baseball needs these days.
I've avoided saying that we're talking about a new direction that's vital for baseball's survival for a reason. With an annual revenue stream approaching $10 billion, megarich TV deals all over and strong attendance figures, baseball's survival isn't as iffy as some people out there think.
But MLB does have growth to worry about. And to this extent, it's an open secret that baseball has a problem with the youth demographic.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, the average World Series viewer was 54.4 years old. Put both Championship Series together, and kids between the ages of six and 17 made up for less than five percent of the viewership. Also, MLB Advanced Media boss Robert Bowman said last year (via Royals Review) that sales of MLB.tv are poor with 18-25-year-olds.
Maybe this has more to do with the game itself than anything else, especially knowing that we're in an age when even putting the ball in play is a challenge. However, there is something to be said about how baseball doesn't fit in its surroundings as well as it used to.
Here's Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated writing about how times have changed since World Series viewership hit its peak in 1986:
Many of the qualities associated with baseball are less valued in today's society than they were in 1986, qualities such as teamwork, humility, patience, pensiveness, perseverance, and strategizing. The qualities that have gained in cultural value are not associated with baseball, such as self-promotion, entrepreneurship, violence, action, noise and gambling.
This might read like an old man telling everyone to get off his lawn, but Verducci is not wrong. Sports leagues need extra layers of entertainment on top of the sport itself to attract eyes and ears. And since the cameras and microphones are aimed mostly at players, it's mainly up to them.
This is where playing the game The Right Way is hurting baseball. The league needs players who are just as much entertainers as they are athletes, and right now it can only have so many because of how The Right Way stifles personalities.
As one MLB executive put it to Verducci: "The [younger viewer] is used to seeing celebrations and exhibits of passion. In baseball, that's not allowed."
To MLB's credit, the league clearly isn't demanding that its marketing arm sell baseball as a gentleman's game. If it were, then the league wouldn't be doing things like partnering with MTV or shooting videos that celebrate Yasiel Puig's bat-flipping habit. The league is trying to sell itself as something hip.
But that effort can only go so far, unless those within the game follow suit. That's not going to happen until the players set aside The Right Way code and accept that baseball can be well-played and fun.
Given how old baseball's code is at this point, that's no small favor to ask. But not an unfair one to ask, as it's not like there isn't incentive to rewrite the code.
It begins with "M" and rhymes with "honey." If more ballplayers turn into entertainers and more younger viewers start to be drawn to baseball, that's a larger audience. A larger audience means more revenue. More revenue means higher payrolls. Higher payrolls mean higher salaries.
And lest you think that baseball becoming as much a TV show as a spectator sport could be the death of the sport, if anything, it could make it better. More young fans watching baseball conceivably means more young fans playing baseball. Down the road, baseball's talent pool could grow as a result.
So go ahead, baseball. Start playing a kid's game instead of a gentleman's game. It'll be fun, and it could potentially be a big-time change for the better.
In other words: Nobody's bubble will be burst.
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