As MLB continues to search for ways to increase the popularity of the game, the sport continues to come up with the wrong answers to the question.
Defensive shifts aren’t the problem, and banning them isn’t the solution to driving up interest in the game. Nor is the increase in strikeouts and use of the ‘opener’ responsible for a decline in attendance.
As MLB executives come together this offseason to try and find a solution, they’ll almost certainly misdiagnose the problem once again.
The reason baseball isn’t growing in popularity, and continues to fall further behind the NBA and NFL, is because of its own systemic issues.
This is a sport that still follows ‘unwritten rules’ that date back to an age when the game was still segregated. As the game itself evolved and welcomed athletes from different backgrounds and cultures, many in MLB stuck to their codes from decades past.
When Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was on fire at the plate and having fun, Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Ureña threw his fastest pitch of the season directly at Acuña and hit him.
Many agreed it was a disgusting act by Ureña, though some thought Urena’s decision is what a pitcher has to do when a hitter gets too hot at the plate. That is a major problem and speaks to a backward system that tolerates violent acts of aggression in a game meant for everyone to enjoy.
It isn’t the only troublesome response though. Many people, including the Braves’ broadcasters, called for violent retribution in response. They wanted to follow another one of MLB’s unwritten rules, that throwing at another player is allowed in the name of revenge.
In a sport where a majority of pitchers can throw a small, hard object 95-plus miles per hour, unwritten rules tell players they are justified to use a baseball as a weapon. Even if these pitchers aim for a hitter’s back or arm, the risk always exists for the pitcher’s control to be off and it drills a batter in the head.
Retaliatory hit-by-pitches occur regularly throughout the season. Yet when it happens, MLB consistently fails to send a message to its players that violent retaliation is not allowed. While headlines will read “Jose Urena suspended six games”, the reality is that means one single game for a starting pitcher.
Players are suspended for a game just for making contact with an umpire and they’ll often receive multi-game suspensions for being involved in a brawl. By doing this, MLB sends a message to pitchers that retaliation is acceptable.
We also see fastballs intentionally thrown at hitters if they are perceived to be disrespectful towards an opponent. If a pitcher just allowed a home run and a hitter takes an extra half-second to enjoy it, suddenly the pitcher feels obligated to use a weapon against the batter in his next at-bat.
Imagine if after being posterized by LeBron James, an opponent was allowed to punch LeBron in the face and the NBA let it slide. What if after being torched in coverage, a cornerback repeatedly kicked the wide receiver who beat him for a touchdown and celebrated.
Baseball is a diverse sport with different cultures that add exciting styles, emotions and personalities to the game. MLB is better when it embraces different athletes and allows them to have fun playing the game they have loved since they were a kid.
Show future generations of fans that baseball embraces a fun atmosphere where players can have fun and express themselves without fear of being hit by a fastball.
If MLB really wants to draw in more fans and prove it is a game that welcomes players to have fun and enjoy special moments, then it’s time for the unwritten rules to go away.
Because if the system remains the same without dramatic change, we will be having this conversation again under much different circumstances. The difference will be the calls for change come after a young man’s life or career was forever altered because the unwritten rules and MLB told a pitcher it was okay to throw at the hitter.