How to Make Baseball Cool Again – Bleacher Report
In America, baseball is the first: the first love, the first to capture our imagination, the first to radio and TV, the first to integrate, the first to innovate. It’s America’s pastime, because it was born in America and it is America.
But along the way, we’ve grown jaded. While society sped up, with its smartphones, social media, rapid-fire dribs and drabs of information and quickly shifting news cycles, baseball has remained constant. The game is supposed to last nine innings, but it lasts as long as it must to decide a winner. The season stretches for months and months, while the leaves change color and fans ditch their cargo shorts for peacoats.
A sport that seems stuck in time actually has encouraged the iconoclast and rewarded the edgiest among us. It’s just that the rebel ethos has been lost underneath a seemingly impenetrable layer of tradition that overlooks baseball’s role in moving America forward.
Look no further than the Pittsburgh Pirates of the late ’70s and early ’80s, featuring the legendary Dock Ellis—a pitcher who threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid in 1970—and the smooth-swinging, mustachioed first baseman Willie Stargell cutting an effortlessly cool figure on the basepaths. It was a team so hip it adopted “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, the hit of 1979, as its theme song.
Today, you’ll rarely hear a baseball player name-checked in a hip-hop track, and Drake is not exactly roaming the stands at Blue Jays games, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Ken Griffey Jr. turning his hat backward, Jackie Robinson breaking barriers, Joe DiMaggio hitting the town with Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Damon and the idiots of the Red Sox, the improbable Cubs laughing all the way to a World Series and the undeniable charisma of Bryce Harper—that’s baseball. Innovations over the years like the designated hitter, the wild card and interleague play were designed to make the sport more entertaining to fans, and that’s great.
READ MORE FROM THIS SERIES:
• Ken Griffey Jr., Bryce Harper & More on B/R Mag‘s Commission of Cool
• Inside the Fabulous Life of MLB Prodigy Hunter Greene
• We Re-Designed 5 MLB Jerseys for the 21st Century. Want One?
• Listen to the B/R Mag Show for More Ways to Save Baseball…
But as you’ll see in B/R Mag’s Make Baseball Cool Again special, there remain plenty of things we can do to help baseball reclaim its rightful place in our culture: more scoring, more bat flips, better nicknames—hell, maybe even a dunk tank.
As St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler told B/R Mag’s Make Baseball Cool Again Commission: “If the fans don’t think it’s cool, then I guess it’s not cool. But there’s ways to make it cooler.” Here, with the help of more than a dozen other players, managers and baseball-watchers who spoke to us over the first half of the MLB season, are B/R Mag’s not-so-modest proposals for looking forward, in four fan-first categories. —Dave Schilling
3 EASY THINGS BASEBALL CAN DO RIGHT NOW…BEFORE THE NBA EATS IT ALIVE.
1. Embrace the Handshake, LeBron-Style
(Illustration by Peter Gamlen)
If MLB one-ups the NBA’s culture in one area, it’s the handshake. True story: In athletics, the high five was invented on the baseball field, when Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Glenn Burke cocked his arm back and raised it outside the dugout upon greeting Dusty Baker, after Baker’s 30th home run in 1977. Baker reacted by slapping Burke’s hand, and so a trend was born.
Now, 40 years later, the simple high five has been overtaken by the dap and intricate handshakes rooted in black culture. So let’s own it, expand it and celebrate celebrating.
“I’ve always been a fist bump guy,” Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle says, “because I’ve had trouble remembering some of the steps of the handshake. But now it seems like almost every guy has a choreographed deal with another guy on the team—at least one, but there’s some guys who have one for just about everybody.”
After Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Doolittle said he saw LeBron James execute a different handshake for every player on the Cavaliers, and that gave him an idea: “That might be something we can work on in spring training.” —Scott Miller
2. Embrace the Fearless, Fireballin’ Closer, WWE-Style
The default rock star of every baseball team is the closer. He comes in. He throws gas. He goes home.
Closers even get entrance music, which is maybe less rock ‘n’ roll and more WWE. Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ high-priced fireman, strides to the mound to the sounds of 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love.”
Part of the closer’s job is to win games. The other part is to get fans on their feet after eight innings of hot dogs and flat beer. “People think an out is an out, but not all outs are created equally,” former Rangers, Mets and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told B/R Mag recently while promoting a baseball prediction app called WinView.
Slowly but surely, baseball analytics fiends have de-emphasized the role of the fireballing closer. Cleveland employed a hodgepodge of relievers in various roles during its run to the World Series last year. Mathematically, it seems more beneficial to send out pitchers based on situational superiority.
But some of the most colorful characters in the sport were fearless closers. Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Rod Beck, Eric Gagne. It’s no coincidence that the most dramatic moment in the the classic baseball film Major League revolves around combustible pitcher Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn striding to the mound to get an out in the late innings of a crucial postseason game.
The closer role is inherently dramatic, a one-on-one battle of wills between the pitcher and the batter that requires what Valentine called “a mental presence as well as a physical presence” by the closer.
It’s pure drama and sets baseball apart from every other sport. —D.S.
3. Embrace Latin Culture Already!
On Opening Day, of the 868 players on MLB 25-man rosters and inactive lists, 218 were natives of Latin American countries. That’s a full 25 percent, and the numbers—and influence—are growing.
But let’s forget the numbers and look at just how much fun players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico are having. Along with world-class pitching, hitting and fielding skills, these players bring real emotion to the sport. My goodness, they even do so during the games!
Of those antics, the old school says: Act like you’ve been there, son, and do not dare do anything to besmirch the Grand Old Game. New school says: Let’s throw away some unwritten rules, embrace the game’s melting pot of cultures and celebrate personalities like it’s the World Baseball Classic.
“This is how we play,” Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, who’s from Florida but played for the Dominican in the WBC, tells B/R Mag. “We like to have fun. Why are you walking around with a [serious] face? We play the game the right way. We play the game hard. We play it with emotion.”
Chanting fans, elaborate hand and arm signals from the players and—hey, why not stage the Wild Card Games in Puerto Rico or Mexico? “That would be really cool, man,” Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar says. “Just one game, you lose, you go home. That would be awesome.” —Scott Miller
Purists freaked out when even the possibility of testing new rules surfaced earlier this year. But as Commissioner Rob Manfred told B/R, “You watch what happens and maybe you get an idea.” We’ll see your little changes, Commish, and raise you.
1. Extra Innings with a Man on Second → Home Run Derby Tiebreaker!
(Illustration by Peter Gamlen)
What do fans dig? The long ball. What does MLB despise? Pitcher injuries and lonn(zzzzz)nng games. So, if we’re still tied after nine innings, let’s pit one slugger from each team against each other to settle things, mano a mano.
“Nobody likes playing the long, extra-inning games,” Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt tells B/R Mag. “Fans don’t like it either.”
While he doesn’t necessarily support a Home Run Derby-style showdown to decide the outcome, Goldschmidt says he thinks the idea is “100 percent” interesting enough to explore, “like hockey has a shootout, soccer as well.”
It’s not a simple proposition, he says: “There’s a lot of things that go into it. However many swings you have, the number of outs. Is it like the Home Run Derby for the All-Star Game? Is there a time limit? What if you have a really good guy as a home run hitter, but he’s on the bench and not in the lineup? Do you put him in there?”
One thing is for certain, Goldschmidt says. “A lot would be riding on one guy.” —S.M.
2. 30-Second Replay Reviews → 20-Second Pitch Clock!
Not to name names, but when Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez takes 40 freakin’ seconds to deliver a pitch, the dead time begins to stack up. Look: One of baseball’s charms is that it operates without a clock, but too many people are taking advantage. Throw the damn pitch within 20 seconds, or the umpire calls a ball.
“I don’t know about 20 seconds,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer tells B/R Mag. “I would definitely say you keep somewhat of a steady pace. But I don’t know if you can put a time limit on these things.”
Hosmer says a lot is going on inside the mind of the pitcher and hitter in those seconds between pitches: “The hitter is thinking about his plan. The pitcher is thinking about his plan. So 20 seconds might be a little tight. But it definitely shouldn’t be a minute-and-a-half or something like that.”
Seven-inning games might be a little extreme, but MLB’s equivalent of the shot clock has been a long time coming. Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer says the league could go one step further: “You’ve gotta crack down on the pitchers, and the way you do it is incentivize guys to work quick and not leave the mound,” he tells B/R Mag. “Fine them if they do.” —S.M.
3. No-Pitch Intentional Walk → Three Pickoffs Allowed
Consider the possibilities: If, with a runner on first base, a pitcher was limited to three throws over until that runner advances, think of the strategy involved, the daring. It would speed up the game and encourage more stolen bases, an art form that is fast disappearing—along with the memory of characters like Rickey Henderson and Deion Sanders who infused endless cool on the basepaths.
Aside from the triple—and, arguably, the home run—the stolen base is as exciting a moment as there is in a game that is begging for more action between all the strikeouts and walks.
“I would love that,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner says. “You use all three, you’re done.”
Turner is skeptical that the rule would ever be adopted. “But as a base stealer, it would make a huge difference. I’m sure pitchers would try to figure out a way to exploit it, maybe make it benefit them, but I would love it.”
After that third and final throw over, exactly how large a lead would Turner take? “You could do whatever you want, really. I guess there would be a penalty if you threw over again.”
Regardless, pitchers would have to adjust, Turner says, “and it would make it more exciting because more people would try to steal bases.” —S.M.
4. DH in the National League → Get-Off-the-Mound-Free Card!
Let’s face it: Too many National Leaguers and their fans are clinging to the quirk that is pitchers hitting. Which…fine, but how about this: Each manager can use a pinch hitter one time, any time, during a pitcher’s start, and that starting pitcher can re-enter the game.
Hate starting pitchers hitting in a key spot? Bring a big bopper off the bench to bat for your ace with the bases loaded in, say, the third inning, then send your starting pitcher right back to the mound.
Love geeking out on in-game strategy? What could be more strategic than a manager deciding whether to use and then lose that particular pinch hitter in a third-inning opportunity or opt to save that hitter for later in the game?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has what he thinks is a better idea: “Let’s just go National League rules in both leagues. The National League game is a much more interesting game. It’s a much more thoughtful game.”
Not that Maddon discounts the value of a DH. He knows the Cubs would not have won the World Series last year without it. “Sometimes it’s very beneficial,” he says. “But with the AL, it’s the occasional pinch hitter, the occasional pinch runner and when am I going to take my pitcher out? That’s about it.”
Maddon much prefers the NL game: “I mean, the double-switches, moving lineups around, pinch hitting for the pitcher, batting a pitcher eighth for a variety of reasons. All those things, to me—I’m telling you, they make it a lot more interesting.” —S.M.
3 WAYS TO TAKE THE BEST OF BASEBALL CULTURE…AND PUT IT ON STEROIDS
Including, but not limited to, Zorilla.
1. Make the Bat Flip the New End-Zone Dance
(Illustration by Peter Gamlen)
An unassailable rule of thumb in today’s Snapchat society is that bat flips always go viral. To vilify them takes one of the most exciting moments in sports—the home run—and makes it more subdued (and possibly, ahem, boring).
NBA stars like Steph Curry practically trademark their own three-point celebrations, so why not endorse signature bat flips? Everyone loved the ol’ Sammy Sosa Hop, so why not co-opt and modernize it?
Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig, he of the two-finger salute, is all for it. “It would be super cool,” he tells B/R Mag, “because sometimes you strike out two or three times in a game—and then in the ninth inning, you hit a home run, your team wins, and the first thing you do is throw your bat.”
Puig acknowledges the other team may not like it: “It’s not disrespect. It’s just the first thing you think of. You’re not doing a bat flip every at-bat because you’re not hitting a home run every time. But it’s part of the game.”
At least, Puig thinks it should be. Others, however, disagree.
“I think it’s gotten a little carried away at the big league level,” says Hosmer, the Royals first baseman. “The bat flip stuff is all fun, but I think there are a lot better things to focus on in baseball.”
Yeah, like who should be the judge of the bat flip contest. —S.M.
2. Ban the Wave and Give an Entire Section $5,000 for the Best Cheer/Signs
Why the hell are we still doing The Wave? Who on Earth thinks it’s cool? And if you can identify that fan, please send them our way so we can administer a good old-fashioned noogie. What is a noogie? Something that was popular when your parents were in school, just like The Wave.
Many baseball fans have not taken the hints to cease and desist—even from Thor himself, Noah Syndergaard, and that guy is definitely cool.
Noah Syndergaard @Noahsyndergaard
Home team stadium started the WAVE tonight. Lost 14-4. Coincidence? #justsaying #🚫🌊
So we say it’s time for MLB to encourage creativity. How about throwing a small cash prize in the direction of the most entertaining (and, yes, respectable) section of fans?
Doolittle, the A’s reliever, says, “I’m not a fan of The Wave, especially while I’m pitching. It’s just a little annoying, that’s all.”
The A’s might not be the Raiders, but the cool thing about playing in Oakland, he says, is the fans’ bleacher-creature behavior: “In left field, they have musical instruments. They’ve got drums. They’re doing beats. They’ve got those vuvuzela horns like in the World Cup. They’re rockin’.”
Not to be outdone, the right field fans at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Doolittle says, “have creative signs and choreographed stuff for each player when they come into the game or when when they go up to the plate.”
All that, he says, “helps the atmosphere … creates a cool link between the players and the fans.”
Much more effectively, we might say, than The Wave. —S.M.
3. Put Nicknames on the Backs of Jerseys
Babe. Mr. October. Charlie Hustle. Yogi. Baseball has had some of the best nicknames in all of sports. But in the past decade, MLB has ceded valuable nickname real estate to the NFL and NBA.
Of course you know who “Beast Mode” and “Uncle Drew” are. But were you aware Ben Zobrist’s nickname is “Zorilla”? You know, like a gorilla crossed with Ben Zobrist?
Thankfully, MLB has recognized its branding problem and designated the weekend of August 25 as “Players Weekend.” During those three days, players can customize their cleats, wear patches on their jerseys and, more importantly, put their nicknames on their jerseys—an innovation made famous by “He Hate Me” and the dearly departed XFL.
On a recent road trip to Citi Field, Zobrist told B/R Mag, “Everybody will want to look around and see what each player has. And kids, they’ll love it. It’s very smart. Great marketing.”
Isn’t that who matters most to Major League Baseball today?
While we’re at it, let’s give some of these young players better nicknames.
Cubs slugger Kris Bryant will just wear his initials on his jersey during Players Weekend—because we’re all too lazy to think of something memorable. “But some of the other guys in here have some pretty good nicknames,” Bryant tells B/R Mag. “Zorilla’s pretty cool.”
If you insist, Blue Krush. —S.M. and Danny Knobler
…AND 3 THINGS THAT ARE PRETTY OUT THERE
Hear us out!
1. Trap. Door. On. The. Mound.
(Illustration by Peter Gamlen)
Another beleaguered reliever is getting knocked around like a birthday party pinata, and instead of sitting through another interminable visit to the mound by your favorite manager, that manager…never even leaves the dugout. Instead, he reaches for a button right next to the bullpen phone. One press, the earth of the mound opens up to swallow the pitcher whole.
Come on: Who doesn’t love dunk tanks?
As the pitcher plummets, the manager remains unmoved in the dugout, seated, legs crossed, spitting out the shell of another sunflower seed, nodding like the badass he’s just become.
Doolittle, the A’s reliever, takes it one step further: “And there’s like a slide that dumps you right into your locker,” he says, citing technology at places like Google headquarters where the playground becomes the playing field.
Athletics manager Bob Melvin facetiously endorses the idea as well: “I’m all for that,” he tells B/R Mag. “I think the fans would enjoy it. It would almost look like something out of The Gong Show.”
And, hey, if they can bring back that old game show for 21st-century TV, why not try a stunt in the middle of the field? —S.M.
2. Or at Least Bring Back Bullpen Carts?
OK, OK, OK. Maybe the dunk-tank thing is a little overkill—not to mention potentially injury-inducing. But as long as we’re making relief pitching cool again, let’s at least redesign bullpen carts and maybe install a souped-up sound system to play personalized entrance songs throughout the stadium.
It would turn even a left-handed specialist into his own personal DJ with a custom ride. Like so:
Joon Lee @iamjoonlee
This is why Japanese baseball is amazing: Yakult Swallows closer Yasuaki Yamazaki comes in from the bullpen on a sports car. https://t.co/Cm19SHZxDa
“I’ve been saying this for a couple of years: If you want to speed the game up, that would save more time than the intentional walk thing,” Doolittle says. He continues: “You could bring them in on a car, or an elephant, although that might take too long. But you could come in on a horse or something.”
Royals closer Kelvin Herrera has a less complete embrace of the concept. He thinks “it would be more for the All-Star Game, like a show. Something like that. For the regular season, I think the jog to the mound is good. You get people yelling ‘Ahhh!’ and ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ as you run in. I don’t think the golf cart would be the same.” —S.M.
3. Just Juice the Damn Ball Already
Whenever MLB scoring goes up, theorists and sabermetricians and pundits and ex-players all pop up like groundhogs in search of a shadow to offer their hot takes about the alleged return of the long ball. It’s almost as though we’re not quite comfortable with the idea of baseball being fun to watch, so we have to quantify it and rationalize it. It’s like trying to demystify a Steph Curry half-court heave rather than just reveling in it. Steroids! Expansion! Tiny stadiums! Juiced baseballs!
In truth, all these reasons likely contribute to the home run explosion that’s allowing thrilling young players like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger to flirt with record-breaking numbers. But Major League Baseball continues to deny that its balls have been altered. Let’s assume, for the moment, they haven’t been. If so, then the question remains: Why not?
If we have the technology to make the game more engaging in the social media era, why wouldn’t we? Ask a prolific hitter like the Cubs’ Bryant, and he’ll start gushing about juiced baseballs: “I would love it,” Bryant tells B/R Mag. “I think it should be every game. If it’s the ball that makes the ball go 500 feet instead of 420, it looks cooler.”
Even though the most home runs he’s hit in a single regular season is a whopping 19, Mets infielder Jose Reyes is dubious. “That’s not going to be a lot of fun for pitchers,” he tells B/R Mag. “That’d be playing softball.” —S.M. & D.K.
4. …and the Real Hunt for October
Think March Madness with a World Series at the end. Eight teams, single-elimination, with every contest having a Game 7 atmosphere. Want to make things even more riveting? Stick another trade deadline at the end of September and watch rumors fly across social media as general managers sweat and every team races toward the finish line.
“That’s harsh,” Maddon, the Cubs manager, tells B/R Mag when approached with our audacious playoff solution. “Our game is pretty much designed for the best team to eventually survive. Depth matters in our game. Anything can happen in one game of baseball. The worst team could absolutely beat the best team if you get a hot pitcher on a night or a team makes a mistake.”
Maddon says October Madness would fly in the face of the “survival-of-the-fittest,” long-term ethos of baseball. “If you’re built for five-game and seven-game series, you have a much better chance than if you just get lucky for one night,” he says.
He acknowledges such a format would be interesting for the fans. “But to really find out who the best team is, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he says. “I’ve been in two Wild Card Games, which is the seventh game of the World Series in the very first game. It’s definitely exciting if you’re watching it, but as for the inner workings of the whole thing … I’ve even rallied for best-of-three in the wild-card situation.”
So Joe, just curious: In this format, last year, would the Cubs still have won it all?
“Of course we would have.” —S.M.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottMillerBBL
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @Danny Knobler
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: (@Dave_Schilling) and click here to subscribe to his new podcast, The B/R Mag Show, on iTunes. (Or here for iHeartRADIO or here for TuneIn.)