While MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred continues his increasingly tone-deaf and ineffective campaign to draw more fans to baseball by changing the game rather than changing the way people can follow the game, the real solution is becoming more and more obvious to everyone else. I’m not writing this post because new Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle is the latest player to publicly agree with me; I’m writing it because he’s right:
We were talking about pace of game changes this spring — a similar effort in terms of changing rules to improve fan interaction with the game — but Nationals closer Sean Doolittle thought we were veering off course. “We’re talking about pretty drastic changes to shave five minutes from a game. Are you seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds lining up for season tickets?”
The lefty thought we should consider how the game is packaged and how people could better interact with the game. “Marketing? We’re not that good at it. Let’s see if we can use some of our personalities to drive traffic and energize the game. Blackout rules. Millennials don’t pay for cable. Allow more gifs and videos on social media. Statcast could help if you use it right — showcasing how athletic some of these guys are.”
He’s speaking to the point I (and others, of course) have been making about baseball for as long as I can remember, and I have a very short memory. From April, when I thought MLBAM cut me off from my MLB.tv subscription:
Baseball is a fine game, and to the extent people will like it, they probably will do so for what it is. I’m not opposed to all measures designed, for example, to reduce the time between pitches (or the time spent on commercial breaks). Rather than changing the game he wants people to watch, though, Manfred ought to change the way people can watch the game, obviously by making it easier for them to do so. That approach would allow him to demonstrate more confidence in the quality of the sport he oversees. Instead, his approach has made the national conversation around baseball into one about how boring it currently is. Probably not the best notion for the league’s commissioner to be pushing, especially because no amount of reform is going to be able to radically remake baseball into some sort of rapid, flowing game like hockey or basketball and still have it be recognizable as “baseball.” He’s painted himself into a public-relations corner, and the sooner he switches from emphasizing perceived negatives to emphasizing positives, such as (hypothetical) proposals to make the game even easier to watch and interact with, the better.
It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by [his elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk]. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.
This should be an easy one, Commissioner. If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to your players.