Welcome to the eighth edition of Around the Horn. If you’re still new to this space, this will be a recurring op-ed that riffs on whatever’s recently noteworthy in baseball, except it will have a more satirical slant. Think of it as a stripped down Last Week Tonight or Daily Show in a column format, except all about baseball. There will be recurring segments about the good, bad, and ugly in the world of America’s pastime. Additionally, as often as possible, we’ll end with an interview as well.
There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get right to our first segment:
Our Main Story
If you’re reading this column, you probably love the game of baseball the same way Ricky Bobby loves Baby Jesus. In fact, some of the constant tinkering with the game MLB continues to do may strike you as sacrilege, doing more harm than good. The reality, you might say, is that the game is fine as it is… that it’s called “America’s Pastime” for a reason. However, this is the reality that MLB is dealing with in 2019:
— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) May 1, 2019
Attendance is down, and it shouldn’t be. MLB actually has marketable stars and the ball is literally flying out of the park at an unprecedented pace. Yet, this fact remains:
ESPN released their Top 100 most famous athletes in the world ranking. Bryce Harper is the only baseball player at #99. Last year there were none. Baseball is tied with ice skating, swimming, Moto GP & Esports. This is the problem MLB needs to solve WAY more than pace of play.
— Conor Glassey (@conorglassey) March 16, 2019
I never thought baseball would be duking it out with ice skating for marketing space, but here we are. And to think, ice skating doesn’t even need Tonya Harding’s ex-husband contracting a thug to break the competition’s legs to go toe-to-toe with baseball. These are the times we live in.
Think about this: Mike Trout might go down as the greatest player to ever swing a bat, and he’s currently in his prime. He’s the featured image of this article because he should already be achieving borderline mythical status the way Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and the transcendent stars of other sports do. MLB stadiums should be selling out whenever he comes to play. And he’s not the only sell MLB has to offer. It’s astonishing that only Bryce Harper ranks among the top 100 most famous athletes in the world, and only at 99th at that. Seriously, did baseball go full Charlie Sheen in its quest to be “winning” that its image is forever tarnished? What gives?
Many say the league doesn’t market its stars properly. Some will blame the pace of play, while others might argue the “three true outcomes” approach of a walk, strikeout, or home run has actually made the game less interesting. Others choose to believe the root of the problem actually stems from the fact that only a dozen or so teams are actively trying to win in 2019, while the rest tank for the future.
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, and while I do believe all those aforementioned things have some merit, I can’t help but wonder if the actual ballpark experience has something more to do with it.
In my interview with former Giants prospect Eric Sim, (ironically, the same article where I examined proposed MLB rule changes), he talked about the differences between the ballpark atmosphere in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) vs MLB. It was stark, to say the least. Just check this out:
Cathartic. Cleansing. Akin to a new religion. You’d almost think they were talking about a yoga retreat and not a KBO game. Watching that clip, the closest approximation I can think of to that kind of electric environment would be a college football game or a European soccer match. MLB games in October strive for this, but 162 games make for a long season. Imagine if every fanbase had the kind of affinity for their team that the good people of Busan have for the Lotte Giants.
To be fair, every game may not feature the kind of hysteria you saw in the clip above, but there’s no denying that Korean fans and the KBO approach the live experience of watching a baseball game much differently than MLB and its fans do. Mind you, this is not an indictment of American baseball fans. Not in the least. Every fan should be able to enjoy a game as he or she pleases. For every frenzied, cheering fan waving a sign or banging a drum, there are those who like a relaxing day at the yard, and still, those who like keeping the boxscore with a pencil in hand while celebrating “America’s Pastime” with an overpriced beer and some peanuts and cracker jacks.
That being said, I do wonder if viewing baseball as our “pastime” is part of why attendance is down a bit. I’m inclined to believe MLB may need to focus less on reinventing itself by changing the rules, bringing in fences, altering the chemical composition of its baseballs, and shortening the game by a handful of minutes to capture the ever-wandering minds of a newer generation of fans. Instead, perhaps start with a cheermaster and some bat flips.
After all, it’s probably a sign when a 63-year-old American expat is comparing MLB to “opera” and the KBO to “rock and roll” while attending 120 KBO games simply for the purest reason we all should attend a game: “It’s fun.”
Back to the cheermaster, for a moment. MLB’s equivalent is essentially the mascot. The mascot encourages the players and tries to rally the fans, but do players and fans tell MLB mascots that their “role is crucial” the way Lotte Giants players and fans tell Cho Ji-Hoon his role as cheermaster is? To hear fans call him the “heart of the Lotte Giants” and a “celebrity” further underscores how crucial his role has become. Flanked by a mascot and cheerleaders, he likens himself to an orchestra conductor: choreographing different claps, chants, and songs that correspond to different game situations.
MLB fans get some of this in a disjointed, somewhat detached fashion. A jumbo screen in center field is usually beckoning fans to cheer or clap. A faceless, voiceless mascot if often the only one standing on top of dugouts, walking back and forth and clapping when not shooting balled-up T-shirts into the crowd.
Maybe some will disagree, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pace of play in baseball. There will always be lulls in between pitches and game action. The solution to MLB’s attendance problem may be what it does with its fans during those lulls. Fans at home watching the kind of charged atmosphere you see in the KBO would surely plan more nights and weekends around going to games. Attending an MLB game could become an event that rivals the biggest concerts or spectacles. Granted, the Lotte Giants have the advantage of being the only professional sports franchise in town, but why can’t the Tampa Bay Rays, currently sporting the second-best winning percentage in baseball, have a similar environment at Tropicana Field?
While Rays players like Tommy Pham vent frustration about fan indifference, players of the KBO say the best part of playing at home is the enthusiastic and raucous crowds. Teams have theme songs that instill hometown pride in their fans. What makes the KBO special is the fact that the atmosphere supersedes even a language barrier. Its fans speak a common language that makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome. Do you think the fans rooting for the Lotte Giants care if the game is two hours and forty minutes versus three hours? Hardly.
Based on how excited they are at the game, they probably wish games were longer, not shorter.
Out of the Park
A Look Beyond the Boxscores for the Best in Baseball This Week
“I get half! I got the hit, I get half!”
Jeff McNeil wants half the celebration on the walk-off Alonso RBI. Add this to the growing list of fantastic McNeil quotes early this season.
“I’ve got a hose!” and “Pete Is Good!” are my other two favorites. pic.twitter.com/BSyacYjCPe
— Steve Gelbs (@SteveGelbs) May 1, 2019
Where Baseball Got Caught Looking
Prospect fever is all the rage these days, with seemingly every rookie from Pete Alonso to Michael Chavis to Fernando Tatis coming up and making an immediate impact. However, baseball is a hard game, and the story of Whit Merrifield‘s Dad coming so close, but never making it, serves as a reminder for what the other side of the dream looks like:
With all the talk recently about @vladdyjr27 and @VladGuerrero27, here’s @WhitMerrifield discussing the other side of things. Not everyone makes it. A ton of people have come this close and have similar experiences and stories as Whit’s dad. pic.twitter.com/x8lapHMa5l
Also, why don’t we get Trevor Bauer having dinner with somebody every week? How is this not an actual show on HBO? If we can get Kevin Durant talking with LeBron James at a barber shop, we should be able to get Jeff McNeil and Trevor Bauer dishing on baseball and life, too.
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) April 23, 2019
It’s rather profound to think about what Tatis Sr. did and how we never got the chance to see what Whit Merrifield‘s father could have done. That’s baseball. That’s life.
Cap Anson’s first contract, in 1871 no less, is truly a sight to behold.
Cap Anson’s first professional contract, with the Rockford Forest City club in 1871, survives; presented at Our Game. https://t.co/gxoRXyicRk
— John Thorn (@thorn_john) May 1, 2019
And that’s the ballgame for this week!
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)