‘Baseball is dying!' It's a phrase we have heard and read about for as long as we can remember. Few of us actually believe this mantra, yet baseball does have a demographics problem on their hands, as the median age of an MLB fan is 56 years old.
Rob Manfred is more progressive than his predecessor, not as if that means much in an of itself, but the rhetoric coming out of the commissioner's office is starkly different than it was a year ago. Manfred hired Cal Ripken to act as a youth programs advisor and earlier this week, the Commissioner said MLB would not immediately rule out some extreme measures to make the game more marketable to younger fans.
Below are some proposals to make the game more exciting. Some are feasible and we could certainly see them implemented in the future, while others seem really wild and extreme (and that's not even including my colleague and Managing Editor Emeritus Bryan Grosnick's suggestion of ‘coyotes!').
The Video Game Approach
More and more kids are opting to play games inside rather than playing sports. While a love for the game of baseball is often fostered on a baseball diamond, MLB would be wise to use technology to gain younger more tech-savvy viewers. MLB Advanced Media is one of the most cutting-edge live applications and Major League Baseball is already ahead of the curve on the broadcasting and streaming spectrum.
Utilizing Statcast and fun graphics is a way to engage the audience and a way for the game to appeal to younger fans. Exit velocities, tracking mechanisms, and home run trackers are all ways to keep the game the same, while presenting it in a different way.
Bryan Cole is our resident expert in wearable technology and though it would require union approval, getting players to wear more sensors and displaying interesting data during a game would be more engaging for the scientifically-minded among us.
Okay, so perhaps these suggestions ‘nerd-up' the game more than we want. After all, we're looking for the disengaged youth. How about rooting for more baseball each game due to some....peculiarities?
Changing Extra Innings
I've been present for a 20-inning game. While inning 20 is pretty fun, innings 13-17 are pretty dull. Rather than just playing more baseball as the night wears on, what if the rules were adjusted?
Suggestions #1: Home Run Derby
If the score is tied at the end of nine innings, rather than bring out reliever after reliever, boring us to death until the bullpen is empty and Ichiro has to pitch, each team picks four players and a coach to lob meatballs. This could be a simple model where each of the four players get something like ten swings and the team that hits the most home runs wins. It's not an unprecedented idea, as hockey and soccer both go into shoot-outs and think of the excitement when Jose Bautista goes up against David Ortiz in the final round of a tie game?
Suggestion #2: Taking Away Fielders
This one is my personal favorite because there is significant strategy on both the offensive and defensive side. In this model, teams would play the tenth inning in the normal way, and going into the 11th inning, would have to remove one additional fielder for every inning played. This would put a premium on contact hitters, especially slap-hitters, and strikeout pitchers who limit contact. Perhaps teams would play with two outfielders...perhaps they would employ an infield shift...then an outfield shift! Spray charts would be of utmost importance.
Think of the fun in the 14th inning when teams are playing with only three fielders! What fun.
Suggestion #3: Men on Base
Start each extra inning with a man automatically on second base. This isn't unprecedented, as Austin Yamada pointed out to me, it's already done in some lower level tournaments. Think of the excitement as a single is blooped over the second baseman's head...does the third base coach send the runner? What type of arm does the outfielder possess? Rather than waiting for teams to create a rally, give them an advantage on the basepaths. This scenario rewards speed, good base-running, and outfield arm strength.
Suggestion #4: Speed v. Arm Strength
Let's take all the excitement of suggestion number three, but take the bat out of the hands of the batter. Instead, let's make this into an outfield arms' showcase. This suggestion is courtesy of Kevin Ruprecht who suggested that if game is tied after 12 innings, have a contest of LF/RF/CF where the outfielder attempts to throw out a runner tagging from third on an easy fly ball. Give each outfielder three attempts using a different runner on the basepaths each time. This scenario involves everyone running and showcases something we don't often get to see.
So far we've discussed the possible and the improbable; now let's discuss the absurd!
Baseball Cricket Style
Why do we have foul territory? Who decided that the ball needs to be hit within the confines of angled white chalk? Kids these days don't like rules! Let's get rid of foul territory. Think of the excitement: foul a pitch straight back ----- home run, not sure if a rocket line drive went over third base ----- it doesn't matter! You can even attempt to bunt behind you for a base hit (Ned Yost is swooning).
As a constantly discriminated against southpaw (I just want to play third base!), how about we have a few games a year when players run the bases backwards? Think of the confusion, think of the errors....think of the lefties! Lefty catchers, lefty third basemen...if only clocks ran the other way, the world would be ours! A lefty can dream, can't he?
Other suggestions included having a ceremonial first pitch count towards the first batter's count, having a strikeout victim run to third if the catcher drops the ball instead of first, and not allowing a player to be replaced if he is thrown out of the game.
Few of these suggestions will ever happen on the real stage but perhaps someone will incorporate into a wiffle-ball game this summer. We have to have a little fun considering we're still a few weeks away from (meaningless) games and MLB can't even decide if they want both leagues to play by the same rules! Have any other fun suggestions? Leave them at the bottom.