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Baseball's State of the Union: Some ways to improve the game

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

One important change could be allowing young stars like Bryce Harper to show genuine enthusiasm without fear of retribution.

When Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter for the final out of the 2013 World Series, the celebration at Fenway Park that night might well have served as a celebration of everything that is right about baseball today. A year that opened with a passionate international tournament that football could not dream of replicating, the World Baseball Classic, ended with a team, the "Boston Strong" Red Sox, reminding us that the accessibility and everyday companionship of baseball provides larger social import rarely seen in other sports. The 2013 Red Sox joined the 1947 Dodgers, the 1955 Dodgers, the 1968 Tigers, the 2001 Yankees and the 2004 Red Sox among teams with profound civic meaning.

Moreover, by almost any measurable, the business of Major League Baseball is more successful than ever before. New national TV contracts that begin this year soared 102 percent in value. Money from regional sports networks has skyrocketed, with the Dodgers leading the way with a $6 billion deal over 25 years. Attendance remained greater than 30,000 per game for a 10th consecutive year -- extending a run in which every year since steroid testing began (2004-13) has drawn more fans per game than every year of the Steroid Era at its height (1995-2003). Apple named the MLB At Bat app as the highest grossing app for the fifth straight year. Postseason TV viewership was up 20 percent. Labor peace extended through a record 20th straight season.

How flush with money is baseball? Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw just signed the richest contract ever, a seven-year deal that will pay him $30.7 million a year -- or roughly $1 million a start. Big money for stars is one thing. Even more tellingly, a 31-year-old outfielder who never has been an All-Star, Shin-Soo Choo, makes more money ($18.5 million) than Peyton Manning ($18 million).

The champagne corks that popped that October night in Fenway Park, however, were not matched by many at the Park Avenue offices of MLB or the commissioner's office in Milwaukee. Underneath the pride in the sport's financial success is a concern for the game's standing as both an American cultural institution and an entertainment option, particularly for a younger generation of fans bombarded with choice and marching to a louder, faster drumbeat than did their parents.

As President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he confronts a time when citizens and lawmakers, like boxers heading to their corners, reflexively take diametric positions that make the politics of compromise so difficult. For baseball, the State of the Union is a concern less for where it stands but more for where it may be headed.

"I think we're at an obvious crossroads," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said, "especially with the change in the leadership in the commissioner's office pending. The next five to seven years will be an important time that offers both challenges and opportunities.

"The aging and graying of baseball's demographics is obviously a concern and has been for several years, but the opportunity it presents is interesting. The world of technology has only partially hit baseball and it's going to change a lot of things, as it has in every industry it has touched. How baseball adapts to that and utilizes technology is a major challenge going forward."

Said agent Scott Boras, "We are stepping out of one era and advancing into a new one. What we do have is fresh content seven days a week for eight months. We offer a dynamic that is seven times that of the NFL. The question is, how do we get the next generation?"

Commissioner Bud Selig has said repeatedly that he will retire when his contract ends on Jan. 24, 2015. He turns 80 in July. Some owners still believe Selig will sign another two-year extension. Others believe he will hand-pick his successor from within baseball. Almost none of them believe an outsider has much of a chance.

The challenge for the next commissioner is obvious if not delicate: How much do you change a sport that prides itself on timelessness? The adoption of instant replay and the abolishment of home-plate collisions this year is a start. Baseball must consider changes to the way it looks, the way it is marketed, even the way it is played. Running baseball these days is like wrapping yourself in a luxurious down comforter in a house with no heat: the TV money is the comforter that provides the warm feeling, but sooner or later you have to get around to fixing the furnace.

"My sense is we already [messed up] our place in the national consciousness," said a high-ranking NL executive. "The only thing that has saved us is the DVR. When the DVR was invented it put a premium on live daily content, which became the only thing where commercials were still relevant. That sole fact is responsible for an $8 billion business. If it weren't for that, baseball players wouldn't make three times what football players make."

Baseball players earn averages of $3.2 million a year and $17.9 million in a career -- or 68% more than football players per year ($1.9 million) and 167% more over their average career ($6.7 million). If live content is king in the DVR age, the kingdom of baseball is enormous. Baseball plays more games by the third week of April than the NFL does in its entire season, postseason included.

Conversely, the huge quantity of all that live content -- the stuff advertisers love because people don't time shift it so they can zap through the commercials -- erodes the "event" feel of baseball in a society that places increased premium on "events." Even the World Series has lost some luster as an event, in part because of interleague play and especially because of the increased popularity of college and pro football.

Last season baseball staged 29 playoff games in a 30-day span. The Wild Card games, which began in 2012, have been a hit because their win-or-go home dynamic creates an "event" feel. Last year the two Wild Card games drew more viewers than all 14 non-clinching League Division Series Games.

By the time casual fans get to the World Series, having been asked to watch a month's worth of important three-and-a-half hour games -- and with NFL betting pools and fantasy leagues in full swing by then -- they need a Game 7 to become truly enthralled. And that's where MLB has been unlucky. There has been only one World Series Game 7 in the past 11 years -- the first such drought in the history of the Fall Classic. (The last Game 7, in 2011, is the highest-rated game among the 55 World Series games played since the championship-starved Red Sox won in 2004.) In contrast, from 1985-91, in the golden age of baseball network viewership, baseball staged four Game 7s in seven years.

The apex of World Series viewing was Game 7 of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and Mets, which drew a 38.9 rating and a 55 percent share while up against Monday Night Football. The broadcast environment has changed too much since then for a direct comparison to be applicable (for instance, the rise of cable and streaming and on-demand content). Options for an entertainment-obsessed society have multiplied.

Even considering those caveats, however, what concerns baseball is that it has lost ground to basketball and with young viewers. In 1986, the World Series did twice the rating of the NBA Finals (28.6-14.1). Last year the NBA Finals out-rated the World Series for the fourth time in the past five years (10.5-8.9).

The aging of the baseball audience is obvious. The median viewer age for the World Series clincher was 53; for the NBA Finals clincher it was 40. According to Sports Media Watch, among 18-34 viewers, more women watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals than men watched Game 6 of the World Series. The NBA Finals, which benefits from King Football being dormant in June, attracted more than twice as many 34-and-under viewers (10.83 million) as did the World Series (4.68 million).

Still, when Harris Poll asked sports fans last December to identify their favorite sport, more than twice as many people picked baseball over pro basketball -- 14 percent to six percent. (Pro football led the way with 35 percent.) The poll found baseball's appeal was particularly strong among Hispanics, households with income greater than $100,000 and with suburbanites, and particularly weak among African-Americans, people who live in rural areas and "Echo Boomers," a.k.a. young viewers.

Baseball's loss of young viewers in the postseason typically is blamed on late start times and long games, but those popular theories hold little truth. The 1986 World Series, for instance, had later start times than the 2013 World Series and had the exact same average time of game (3:20). Among the 29 playoff games last year, the seven lowest-rated games all started at 6 p.m. or earlier. It's an established fact: if you put the games on earlier fewer people will watch.

What has hurt baseball's younger viewership may be more about how culture changed. Many of the qualities associated with baseball are less valued in today's society than they were in 1986, qualities such as teamwork, humility, patience, pensiveness, perseverance, and strategizing. The qualities that have gained in cultural value are not associated with baseball, such as self-promotion, entrepreneurship, violence, action, noise and gambling. In 1986 people bought albums, read books and watched network TV; now they buy songs, read tweets and watch video on their phones.

You could see an example of this cultural shift to the faster and louder -- essentially, away from baseball and toward football -- in how Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander reacted to the ravings of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman after the NFC title game: Sherman, he said, would get a pitch toward his head if he ever tried that kind of self-promotion in baseball. In football, where simply doing your job invites over-the-top self-congratulation, Sherman only became more popular.

(You can add performance-enhancing drugs to this shift in sporting values, too. Since 2006, the NFL has had 172 percent more PED suspensions than baseball, 87-32, and yet baseball, with the far better testing program, is mentioned far more often as the sport with the drug "problem.")

Exciting young baseball players such as Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig have been castigated for not "acting the right way," which typically means tamping personality. Meanwhile, sports fans are flocking to "personalities" in other sports, be they aspirational or notorious; as in the reality TV genre, value judgments on character are no longer necessarily applicable to popularity. It's unheard of to find a baseball player in popular culture today (commercials, movies, TV, etc.) with a speaking role out of uniform, as athletes such as Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, LeBron James and Dale Earnhardt Jr. regularly do.

"The one thing we have to change is this idea about 'playing the game the way it ought to be played,'" said one senior MLB executive. "I'm not talking about showing up the opponent. I'm talking about showing genuine emotion -- like Shane Victorino in the World Series. The 18-34 [viewer] is used to seeing celebrations and exhibits of passion. In baseball, that's not allowed. Remember when Matt Harvey was criticized for doing too many TV appearances? We have to move away from that."

As society speeds up, baseball is slowing down. Last year produced the lowest batting average in the major leagues since the designated hitter was adopted 40 years ago. Runs per game sunk to its lowest level since 1992. Meanwhile, strikeouts hit a record high for an eighth straight year.

Baseball has seen a perfect storm develop for run prevention. There are more good pitchers than ever before while average velocity is increasing and while the increase in information and data, because of how it affects scouting and the alignment of defenders, heavily favors defense. The net result is more games with more pitching changes and more strikeouts and fewer runs. Translation: it takes longer for less to happen. Last year more than one out of every four plate appearances ended without the ball being put into play -- strikeouts and walks accounted for 28 percent of the game, with the raw numbers for such non-contact plays having increased by 10 percent in 10 years.

"The ball not being in play is a huge thing," said an NL executive. "The game is fundamentally different than it was 50 years ago."

Here's a quick way to measure how it takes more and more pitches and more and more pitchers to produce fewer and fewer runs. It's a look at the rate of strikeouts, the number of pitching changes per game (PC) and the total runs per game in the 40 years since the adoption of the DH, taken in snapshots 10 years apart:

YearStrikeoutsPitching ChangesRuns/Game
201319.86%5.908.34
200316.43%5.339.46
199315.07%4.549.20
198313.52%3.218.62
197313.68%2.748.42

There is no evidence that the rates of strikeouts and pitching changes are slowing. Said one owner, "The game is a fantastically appealing game in part because of the daily-ness, the randomness and the complexity, but it's going to have to change. The NFL has a Competition Committee that is changing the rules every year. Baseball embraces and celebrates its history, but it has to make adjustments, too. And people will not find it an abomination. We did it a little this year with replay. These changes should be looked at with greater enthusiasm rather than resignation."

The NFL radically has changed how pro football is played. It sells quarterbacks the way Hollywood sells leading actors, and continually changes the rules to keep these stars healthy and make them look better. Completing a pass has never been easier. With hardly anyone bothering to notice what it did to the history books, the NFL this year set all-time records for completions, pass attempts, percentage of passes completed, total yards and points. Of the top 12 quarterbacks all time as ranked by passing yards per game, 10 of them are active.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rather casually floated the idea recently of changing the very fundamental scoring rules of the sport -- doing away with the extra point and re-valuing a touchdown as seven points -- and caused barely a ripple of concern. The NFL uses pencil and paper, not stone tablets, to write its rules. Almost nobody thinks this is a bad thing that the NFL has little historical consistency.

Baseball, because there is a kind of tyranny in its statistics, does not enjoy a similar freedom. To be fair, Selig has modernized the game in many ways. Since 1997 baseball has instituted interleague play, increased revenue sharing, the toughest steroid testing program in American sports, replay on boundary calls, World Series homefield advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game, realignment, a second wild card in each league and now expanded replay. But none of those changes have addressed the conundrum of how the game is taking longer to produce less action while the pace of popular culture has quickened.

What kind of changes may be next? What follows are some ideas that could at least be starting points for healthy discussions. Keep in mind that changes in baseball come slowly and incrementally, so the idea of implementing all of them, or even most of them, any time soon is not realistic. Consider these as conversation starters:

Photo: SI

Baseball's connection to its individual communities remains a strong selling point for the game.

The Bonus Batter. I proposed this idea last October. Each manager each game gets to pick one at-bat when he can send any batter to the plate -- including somebody already in the lineup -- to bat for someone else without having to lose the player who gives up the at-bat. The idea is to get the stars of the game to the plate in the biggest moments and, if the manager picks the right spot, a situation where he can't be walked. It also adds tension and strategy to the game.

Sounds crazy? People thought the same thing in 1973 about the idea of designating one player to do nothing but hit.

The Summer Game. It makes no sense that in one of the few windows when baseball has the sports calendar to itself -- the All-Star break in July -- it goes dark for two nights after the All-Star Game. It needs an "event." It should schedule one game for the Thursday after the All-Star Game, bill it as The Summer Game, and play it at an iconic American venue, such as the foothills near Mount Rushmore, the mall in Washington D.C., the Field of Dreams field in Iowa, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Rose Bowl, Michigan Stadium, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., etc. In some cases you may need to build a temporary field and compromise on attendance and dimensions, but you're talking about one regular season game out of 2,430 that is visually stunning, brings Major League Baseball to a place it never has been before, appeals to the "event" appetite of demanding sports viewers, and underscores baseball's unique place in Americana.

Bracket-style Home Run Derby. The current format is tedious and uninspired. Do away with "rounds" of hitting. Select the 16 most high-profile sluggers and let them go at it bracket-style. (Can you say "office pool?") How about Harper going head-to-head against Mike Trout? Winner advances, loser is knocked out. Think you might want to watch that?

Best-of-five LCS. The inventory of non-clinching postseason games has grown while attracting smaller audiences. A best-of-five LCS (the way it was from 1969-84) pumps more urgency into the postseason and lifts the profile of the World Series, which becomes the only best-of-seven round instead of just another round.

A neutral site World Series. Boras is a proponent of creating a Super Bowl-style World Series Weekend. At a predetermined warm-weather site, hold an awards gala on Friday night, in which the top awards are announced, followed by Games 1 and 2 of the World Series the next two nights. The series then would be hosted in a 2-2-1 format by the league champions. The down side: one team would not get a World Series home game in the event of a sweep. A possible workaround to that problem is to play only one game at the neutral site or adopt a best-of-nine format with no off days.

"I'm big on the World Series being a planned event," Boras said. "The problem with World Series ratings right now is that they are regional."

Fund college baseball. "Baseball literally has billions of dollars set aside, and for what?" said one club executive. "What they should and can do tomorrow is to fund scholarships for college programs."

Baseball programs are allowed a maximum of only 11.7 scholarships. Full rides are almost unheard of. Basketball and football typically pay the full cost of college for elite players, thus providing a major incentive for the multi-sport athlete to chose those sports over baseball.

Install a pitch clock. Baseball has tried for 20 years to improve the pace of games, but without an actual clock it never will happen. The rulebook states that a pitcher should deliver a pitch within 12 seconds when the bases are empty. It's the most abused rule in the book. The average time between pitches is about 19 seconds with the bases empty and 27 seconds with runners on.

Limit timeouts. Baseball is the only sport where teams get an unlimited number of timeouts. The number of mound conferences between the catcher and pitcher has become absurd. If the manager and pitching coach are limited in their trips to the mound (a second in the same inning requires the removal of the pitcher), so should the catcher.

Limit pitching changes. A rule already exists: a pitcher has to face one batter. But what if he had to obtain one out before he could be removed? Or, if you gave a manager an allowance of only one mid-inning change per inning, what if he had to finish the inning?

Start every batter with a 1-and-1 count. This is too radical for my tastes. You essentially would be changing strikeouts to two strikes and walks to three balls. This is a common tactic for amateur coaches in scrimmages to improve the pace of play to get more repetitions for hitters, pitchers and fielders -- and it does work toward creating a faster game. I just don't believe baseball requires something this drastic.

It's worth remembering that baseball is a thriving business. More people consume baseball in more ways than ever before. No other sport provides fans, especially families, with a better (and cheaper) in-person experience than baseball, where the ballpark itself, the outdoor air and the impulse to gather as a community are part of the unique attraction. And as the American population continues to age, baseball's strong loyalty from an older demographic may not be a bad thing.

But what happens as this young generation of discriminating viewers ages, the viewers occupied by football who don't watch the World Series unless their favorite team is playing or unless there is a Game 7? Will they turn to baseball as they age and their lives slow down? Or does the lack of an emotional connection to baseball in their youth keep them forever apart from the sport? No one can be sure of that answer, not in these unprecedented times when culture changes so quickly and when entertainment choices grow so abundant. In such uncertain times, the greatest risk to take may be not taking one at all.

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