Baseball, Commentary, Opening Day -

Baseball is back — and in a weird spot For the first time in a long time, it feels like the sport is having an identity crisis

Baseball, Commentary, Opening Day -

Baseball is back — and in a weird spot For the first time in a long time, it feels like the sport is having an identity crisis

For some people, Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season is amateur hour. Like New Year’s Eve, driver’s ed courses and cooking classes. You show up, complete the task, then claim for the rest of that particular time cycle that you’re good because you’ve completed the requirements of being a baseball fan.

But for me, Opening Day is a tradition that I’ll probably hold on to longer than any other. Not because I want to eat a hot dog and drink a beer with a bunch of other people, but because of the journey it represents. Hack sportswriters will all tell you that everyone starts at the same place and thus everyone can conceivably have hope for a successful season. That’s a false utopia, but whatever.

This year, though, baseball is in a weird spot. People who grew up watching the game as casual fans now feel alienated from the game because it’s too specialized, too long and too boring. All are understandable feelings. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the actual sport itself is having an identity crisis.

Minor League Baseball is experimenting with putting a runner on second in extra innings to make things more exciting, apparently. MLB is putting a limit on mound visits as a way to try to shorten games. One franchise, the Arizona Diamondbacks, is bringing back the bullpen car to liven up pitching changes, and in Baltimore, the team is letting kids age 9 and under into games for free because that’s what they’ve come to.

If I’m being real, it’s heartbreaking. The sport has understandably turned to various gimmicks to try to improve ratings and attendance, and at the risk of sounding like the oldest man in Oldmanistan, it’s sad. To be clear, bullpen carts are incredible and letting kids into the park is even better. It’s not about the specificity of the gimmick, it’s about the fact that baseball is no longer good enough.

Look around the league and tell me who the people are who move the needle the most. The guys with the personalities, who play like they don’t care what opponents think and just want to have a good time playing. You can see it in the World Baseball Classic when players represent their home nations, and you can see it at lower levels of the game, where the notion of decorum and code are a little less rigid.

As a kid who grew up a baseball fanatic in a city without a big league team, I fell in love with the characters on the field, doing my best to connect with their personalities as humans and players, far more than my allegiance to the success of any one team. And those years of the ’80s and ’90s, there was a large swag element that was noticeable, and from far more people than just the stars. Now, if a team has a manager who curses a lot and a player who wears his hat askew, they’re looked at as loose cannons.

All this is to say that it’s an important season for the big league product. When I sat on a panel at the winter meetings in Orlando, Florida, I was asked what big league teams could do to improve the television experience of baseball. There’s a monumental focus on time, when the reality is about the game. If people don’t want to watch guys field ground balls, make throws and foul off pitches, then they just don’t.

Throwing bells and whistles into random parts of the sport is not going to draw people to the yard or their television sets. Baseball has become too monolithic in style, with the personality of the game we’re told to draw on as a child to endear ourselves to the game erased by adulthood with the wholly idiotic phrase “that’s not how you play the game.”

I’ve been to probably 10 ballgames already this season. None of them in the big leagues, but the passion was equally present. The Opening Day crowds across the nation are an interesting indicator of who the big leagues are trying to draw. There are those who show up for the experience and those who show up for the game, while most people do both. But are pitch clocks and batter’s box restrictions going to bring them back to the park? Unlikely.

If a game is entertaining, it doesn’t really matter how long it is. That’s the whole point of the sport. And the players are the ones who make it so. But as long as those in the ranks are operating on a code that strips the diamond of what originally made it delightful, the fans will know better. Everyone who shows up this weekend to watch hardball is there to have fun. Whether they do or not will likely be on the guys in uniform, not the ones in the commissioner’s office.

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