By Ron Wynn
Major League Baseball opened its new season last week with a novel approach: it actually had all 30 teams open the season on the same day. There had been past experiments with international openers and some teams getting a jump on others, but this time the sport decided to try a return to something that previously worked: a genuine opening day.
MLB might also think about trying some other tried and true things to help it solve some perennial problems. The first concerns possibly returning to a 154 game schedule rather than the current 162, which came in during the first wave of expansion in the early ‘60s. The current schedule plus expanded playoffs has caused the season to begin at the end of March and extend into early November. The front end collides with NCAA basketball championships, while the back end faces opposition from college and pro football.
In the old days, when baseball ruled the sports universe, it didn’t really matter. But now, with the median age of baseball fans being in their 60s and the sport having a hard time generating the kind of ratings or online buzz that routinely go to the NFL and NBA, it might be wise to try and maximize the time when baseball dominates things, which is during the spring and summer.
Pace of play is another problem that the sport tried to address last offseason, except that the Players Union bitterly opposed the implementation of a pitch clock, despite the fact it now exists in all minor leagues. The compromise was a limit on mound visits. But a better solution would simply be that once a batter steps into the box, don’t let them keep stepping out and interrupting the game’s flow. Put a limit on that and for that matter the number of times a pitcher can step off the mound or rubber. All of that would have a more tangible effect on pace of play than limiting trips to the mound.
The sport still is having trouble attracting young people, especially young Black Americans. In the short term this may improve given the fact that two of the last three drafts featured Black ballplayers being drafted first. But the sport needs more Black American faces involved in its promotion and management. With Dave Roberts now the long African American manager, and a shortage of faces in the positions of general manager/player personnel director/president, it is a tough sell to a multisport high school athlete.
Add in the fact most colleges have a limited number of scholarships, and even some of them aren’t full, vs the number of full packages available to gifted football and basketball players and baseball is behind the eight ball. Plus a large number of HBCUs and even a lot of inner city high school teams no longer even field baseball squads, which means more potential MLB caliber athletes are instead playing other sports.
MLB also faces a big problem with free agency, notably the fact some teams will participate and others won’t. The Washington Nationals for example will no doubt lose Bryce Harper after this season, with his agent openly saying Harper will become the first $40 million dollar player. Whether true or not, the Nationals don’t even seem inclined to try and keep a player who’s been their star since signing with them out of high school.
Those who love baseball will always insist it’s fine and doesn’t need any changes. But the people who run it are definitely worried about an aging fan base, diminished popularity on TV and openly not just where they will come from, but if there will even be a next generation of baseball players and fans.