Game 7 of the 2016 World Series will be remembered as one of the greatest in baseball history. The Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in a pulsating matchup of innumerable twists and turns as over 40 million people watched on television across America. It was baseball’s largest audience in twenty-five years; one that even outgunned the previously omnipotent Sunday Night Football. Thus, we live in times of tremendous opportunity for MLB. Building from this foundation is essential.
Of course, we’re not stupid. This kind of game occurs once in a lifetime. No teams had waited longer for a championship, and 176 years of combined hope rested on that one matchup. People were eager to see one of these star-crossed franchises finally win it all. Many others were attracted by the morbid prospect of seeing how the other team managed to blow it again.
But let’s not penetrate too deep just yet. Let’s start with a simple observation: there is still a large appetite for baseball around the world. There is still something very real to work with. A quirky, historic Series put baseball back in the shop window. Now, it’s time to capitalise on that by sharpening its image and making it desirable for the casual shopper and seasoned customer alike.
I’m a staunch baseball traditionalist. I use statistics to support instincts rather than inform them. I appreciate a great take at the plate or a fine pivot on a double play more than I do a few digits under the heading WAR. The sense of history and heritage is integral to my enjoyment of baseball.
Yet even I can see that now is the time for change. There’s an important difference between something being traditional and something being anachronistic. In order for baseball to grow, we must recognise that and make appropriate changes for a new age and a different demographic.
It’s time to consider a pitch clock, shaving the duration of games.
It’s time to limit the amount of pitching changes per inning, reducing dead air and encouraging serious competition.
And yes, it’s time for the National League to think hard about adopting the designated hitter rule.
Further afield, it’s time to fix instant replay. No more stalling. No more phone calls to a guy watching in the video room. Each manager gets a flag and five seconds in which to challenge at the end of each play. Trust your gut. Let’s go.
In a similar vein, is there a way to limit the amount of times a coach or catcher visits the mound?
Can we bring back bullpen cars to further speed up pitching changes?
Is it time to debate an illegal defence rule that blunts the influence of overbearing defensive shifts?
Do we really need two minutes and twenty-five seconds between innings?
Can we improve MLB TV by eliminating blackout restrictions and the annoying Commercial Break In Progress screens?
Is there a way to start games earlier, allowing kids a greater opportunity to fall in love with baseball?
Yes, the recent surge in television ratings occurred with baseball in its present form, with none of these changes in place. And yes, there is little tangible evidence that people want, need or will even support such alterations. But surely it’s the right thing to do. Even as a diehard fan, I know the game can be too unwieldy, too difficult to grasp. We need to make it sharper, clearer, more accessible.
We need to see Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in commercials.We need to promote our stars more across social media. We need to seize the day.
Can ticket prices be reduced, enticing families to visit the ballpark?
Can we use the World Baseball Classic to better showcase the diverse flamboyance of this great game?
And can we finally learn to grow up and tolerate bat flips, in all their wonderful glory?
Is there a way to shorten the season, but improve the quality of play?
Are we able to build new stadiums in Oakland and Tampa Bay?
Will expansion be part of the future, enabling a rebalanced schedule?
Once these issues are resolved, can we get really creative, winning the hearts and minds of entirely different people? I’m thinking of bonus batters as rewards for big innings, and perhaps even robot umpires at an absolute push.
Right now, everything needs to be placed on the table for discussion. We need to be brave. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made improvements early in his premiership, and the large television ratings are a pleasing reward for his obvious hard work. But a crossroads is up ahead, as a new generation of stars emerges. More importantly, a new breed of fan is coming of age. Baseball needs to be ready for that.
There’s no telling what the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will bring this winter, but we should remember that baseball is the most guarded game of all. There will be less resistance to Donald Trump inevitably painting the White House gold than there will be to automatic intentional walks being introduced next season. However, we need to grasp one simple fact: the world is changing at a pace that almost outstrips our ability to chronicle it. Baseball cannot stand still.
It’s footprint as America’s first love will never be diminished. Yet now, as opportunity shines through at last, realism is needed. MLB must be more NBA than NHL in our bright new future. Getting there will require a lot of tough decisions, but I’m ready for the fight.
Let’s do this.
Let’s do this together.