A Manfred For A New Season

Baseball diehards have had February 19 circled on their calendars for months now; that’s the day Spring Training opens. But only the most diehard of the diehards had January 25 circled. That was the day Rob Manfred took over as Commissioner of Baseball, relieving us at last from the burden of having Bud Selig as the game’s figurehead.

What should Manfred’s top priority be now that he is the Commissioner? Here’s a suggestion: hoping and praying that last fall’s run by the Royals wasn’t a fluke.

The DFR: BaseballDoes it matter who is baseball’s commissioner? In general, probably not. On specific matters, perhaps. Issuing rulings on “baseball justice”–what to do about those found guilty of breaking league rules–seems to be the commissioner’s primary responsibility. Doing that job–well or poorly–can make a difference all on its own. (Just ask Roger Goodell.) The Commissioner also plays a role in setting the agenda for how the sport will spend its resources in growing the game.

That latter role seems to be most on Manfred’s mind as he takes office. His letter to fans, published upon his taking office, dwells at some length on making baseball more popular with kids. Fair enough. That’s a good goal to have. But another way to get kids into the game is to have winning teams in their backyards. In other words, a World Series appearance by a team like the Royals has to happen more frequently than once every thirty years.

Nothing sells a sport to the local kids like championship games being played in their neighborhood.

Nothing sells a sport to the local kids like championship games being played in their neighborhood. “Their neighborhood” may be broadly defined as the local TV market, but the principal stays the same. The excitement generated by your hometown team playing on the game’s biggest stage will never be surpassed as a sales pitch for the sport.

Case in point: in his letter Manfred pointedly namechecks RBI, MLB’s program for getting more “urban” kids into the game. RBI has been hard at work preaching baseball to inner city kids since 1989. (According to the RBI fact sheet, it has been under MLB’s control since 1991). Yet Manfred still sees “[bringing] more people into our game”–specifically “underserved” kids–as his top priority. If twenty-plus years of pointedly pushing kids towards participation in the sport has not sufficiently put baseball at the top of every kid’s list, why expect RBI–or any similarly designed program–to work now?

This is not to argue that MLB should just pull up stakes on their participation in youth sports. By all means, keep doing good deeds. But if kids aren’t as turned on to baseball as Manfred would like, perhaps there’s another side to the story.

Until last year, a whole generation of Kansas City kids had not seen playoff baseball come to town. Kids in Pittsburgh and Baltimore faced a similar scenario until the last two seasons. Youngsters in San Diego, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Colorado, Miami, Cleveland, and Cincinnati may have seen their teams in the postseason within their lifetimes–which means only the last five years when you’re talking about the prime, allegiance forming time of life–but their heroes didn’t get very far into October, usually because one of the postseason perennials–the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Giants–dispatched the upstarts with relative ease. For youngsters in those also-ran towns, season after season of disappointing endings must dampen their enthusiasm for the game.

The point is, fans of teams throughout the major leagues need to have hope. Not foolish “Spring Training waxing poetic” hope; what they need is a sense that their team has a realistic chance to win the World Series.

Some may object that parity–that’s what we’re talking about–is just another name for mediocrity, and that dynasties are what draw in the fans. Everyone knows that the 1950s, when the Yankees won the Series almost every year, were baseball’s golden age. That one larger than life team is a sport’s best selling point.

So goes the argument. We have been conditioned to think of those days as the golden age, because we’ve been drowned under a tidal wave of geeky, cardigan wearing writers waxing nostalgic about those times, because we’ve listened to Billy Crystal rhapsodizing about Mickey Mantle, because all those grainy photos and films of yesteryear come with built-in warm fuzzies for bygone days.

But consider this: if MLB’s fortunes were so great then, why did six of twelve teams (Braves, Athletics, Giants, Dodgers, Orioles, and Senators) move during the ’50s or immediately thereafter? Some of that movement can be attributed to the country’s shifting population–the Giants and Dodgers moving to California seems obvious in retrospect–but why not fill the gaps with expansion teams, as was eventually done in other cities? Today,  we see a league with member teams moving around like barnstormers as a sign of instability and financial problems–not as a sport in its golden age.

And what happened in the 1960s, in the wake of a decade and a half of one team virtually dominating baseball? The rise of a rival, that’s what. The NFL had been around for decades by the time the Sixties dawned, but only then did the football take off and supplant baseball as the country’s dominant team sport. Part of that change grew out of broader factors (television’s rising dominance, changing demographics, cultural shifts), but some part of it must have arisen from frustration with baseball’s seemingly preordained outcomes.

Football has had its dynasties since then, but parity has largely been the rule ever since Wellington Mara got the other owners to agree to television revenue sharing. Every team in the NFL, given competent management, has a chance to be successful, thanks in great part to the financial stability that came from revenue sharing. Today every NFL fan knows that his team has a chance to win the Super Bowl, or at least that a bad team can turn it around quickly and make that goal realistic. Can every baseball fan say that about his team?

It’s not an easy sell, trying to get team owners to care about the whole league’s welfare instead of just their own bottom line. But that should be Manfred’s top priority. Make sure the sport is solid from the top to the bottom of the standings, so that that order can be reversed once in a while. If the new Commissioner spends his energies on that task, convincing the kids to take themselves out to the ball park will largely take care of itself.

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