The question persists: “How do we fix baseball?”
Despite the countless suggested rule changes, a large and vocal camp of fans will vehemently insist that the game is fine as it is. And they could be right: the game itself doesn’t need radical changes. Instead, its marketing does.
This week, ESPN released its World Fame 100 list, a ranking of the 100 most popular athletes across the globe. There isn’t a single baseball player on the list. The immediate reaction, of course, is to panic about the game’s popularity. Maybe it’s misguided misguided though. Consider the chicken-egg conundrum: does the game’s lack of global presence lead to lack of player popularity … or vice versa? I would argue the latter.
First of all, baseball’s culture diverges from its counterparts (namely basketball) in that the focus is the team. As Joey Votto told C. Trent Rosecrans in an Athletic Q&A, “I think internationally, in our particular sport, people recognize the teams and less the athletes.” It’s no coincidence: While the NBA is building narratives around Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook, MLB is pushing narratives around the Yankees vs. the Red Sox. Maybe it’s just the nature of the game. To be fair to baseball, individual head-to-head rivalries just wouldn’t make sense. (A Judge vs. Betts rivalry?) Votto also pointed out that individual contributions, no matter how heroic, don’t stand out. A baseball team seems so intrinsically unified that it naturally comes before any one player. For this reason, the game’s most talented superstars often don’t even garner a glimmer of recognition when you mention their names outside of baseball.
The game doesn’t automatically get a pass for this though. Rather, it may reveal a critical fault: an avoidance of personality, an adherence to tradition when society demands otherwise. You need not look further than the uniform crackdowns this month, in which MLB banned players from wearing certain arm sleeves or cleats of their choosing. On a more pervasive level, baseball’s varying subcultures look disdainfully on loud celebrations, open displays of emotion, bat flips, and the like. Unsurprisingly, a league with such a dazzling past and dignified title of “America’s Pastime” has taken a conservative approach, and it’s no wonder that this conservative approach correlates highly with stifled personality.
Should Mike Trout and Bryce Harper be household names among families that don’t regularly follow baseball? Absolutely. Can they be? Despite the notion that baseball is a team-first league, the answer is still a resounding absolutely. It goes even further than that. MLB needs not only to expand geographically but also demographically. How do we accomplish all of this? The easiest answer is selling their talents to the public. As far as I’m concerned, we’re already doing that. The next step is selling their personalities—herein lies the key not only to Harper’s hair being known worldwide but also to the future of baseball.
You see, it isn’t enough to merely push on-field narratives about players. It isn’t enough to write columns on their achievements and highlight their contributions through social media, as important as those activities are. For better or worse, well-known athletes are more than statistics: they’re dramatic, passionate, charismatic, riveting. LeBron James isn’t just a basketball player. He’s LeBron James, and everyone knows him. Tom Brady is a “pivotal figure,” according to ESPN, whether you like him or not. Personality creates buzz, and buzz creates a following.
Of course, maybe athletes are a product of their respective sports’ cultures, and baseball players aren’t the kind of creatures to create such buzz. Maybe all I’ve said about other athletes couldn’t possibly translate to this game. Even if this is the case, it doesn’t always take great drama to gain a following. Players showing personality is critical, no matter how boisterous or tame.
Here’s why: parasocial relationships, products of our need for social connection, are critical in baseball. Fans commit emotional energy and time to players, which in turn fuels fandom. They become invested in the people, not just the game. It’s a big reason why people keep coming back. Naturally the question becomes, “How do these relationships form?” For fans to see players as people, they need to see personality. They need to “know” the person.
This season, I started following the Diamondbacks from what I thought would be an objective perspective. Within a few weeks, I was emotionally invested. Part of it was the fact that I watched Fox Sports Arizona broadcasts and began to see the team through a closer lens. Part of it was what FSAZ featured in its broadcasts—player interviews, all of them focused on other players. What better way to learn about A.J. Pollock’s need to be right all the time than to listen to anecdotes from his teammates? How else would one learn that Daniel Descalso has a personal mission to prove him wrong? In this way, I found myself caring about these professional baseball players I had never met. This is how those relationships form. This is where fans are most passionate: the intersection between the game and the people playing it.
What does that mean for baseball? It means that MLB is missing out on one of its crucial components, the players themselves. Of course people watch baseball to see the game itself, but the game is nothing without the personalities of those on the field. Fans will remember Jose Bautista’s bat flip during Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS. They’ll remember Team Puerto Rico’s celebrations in the 2017 WBC. Every day, fans will take note of their favorite players’ emotions, their dugout celebrations, the cleats they wear and arm sleeves they don. This isn’t our grandparents’ game anymore. If the league wants to keep up with younger generations and the world, it should embrace the colorful, not hide it. Showcase personality. Let the players tell the story.
“This is a story of people and of human drama—of a sport that is so much like life, in its tragic as well as glorious forms, that we get swept into its emotional drama whether we’re fans or not.” — Ken Burns