Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Home Run Derby Must Showcase Young Stars

Major League Baseball recently unveiled a new format for its annual Home Run Derby, with participants now given a set amount of time in which to launch as many round-trippers as possible. This should make the event shorter, sharper, and much more palatable for television, but Commissioner Rob Manfred must also strive to make the Derby a showcase of the sport's brightest young stars.

By now, you're well aware of the narrative. Baseball is old, slow, anachronistic. The present generation yearns for instant gratification, rather than plodding mystery. Kids prefer the NBA's whiz-bang drama or the NFL's hyperbolic soap opera to MLB's unfurling poetry. The old ballgame, once America's definitive sporting fixation, is now forced to compete with video games, mobile phones and social networks for a share of our ever-diminished attention spans. Adolescents don't have time for baseball nowadays.

Yet, the Home Run Derby is baseball's one opportunity to be different; its one opportunity to be loud, brash, and self-aggrandizing. The act of witnessing a seamed ball fly over a stadium wall has captivated humans for more than a century, and the Home Run Derby plays on that fascination to create an inherently exciting spectacle. When people read box scores or watch baseball recaps, they typically skip to see if any home runs were hit. The Derby boils that interest down into one evening of entertainment, like a highlight reel brought to life.

Thus, the annual homer contest is arguably baseball's greatest weapon in the fight to win new and younger fans. It takes places in early July, when the other main sports are dormant, giving baseball a midsummer night under the brightest spotlight. Traditionally, the Derby rates reasonably well in terms of television viewers, which affords Commissioner Manfred a prime opportunity to entertain the nation, exhibit baseball in a positive manner, and, above all else, promote the game's most vibrant young superstars.

Right now, baseball is blessed with an extraordinary crop of fresh-faced wonder kids, but they're seemingly overshadowed by their contemporaries in football and basketball. From Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper, through Anthony Rizzo, Joc Pederson and Paul Goldschmidt, and on to Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant, baseball is well-endowed with rising stars, and the Home Run Derby would be an ideal platform for them to gain mainstream exposure and cultivate wide-reaching fanbases.

MLB has already taken a step in the right direction by dispensing with team captains for the Derby, meaning a new selection process is likely forthcoming. Accordingly, at this juncture, I believe it would be beneficial to install some kind of mechanism to ensure that younger players star in the event. Of course, such a process would be tricky. In no way do I wish to discriminate against older, more established players. After all, Albert Pujols expressed an interest in competing this year, which is fantastic. But I feel that ballplayers, on the whole, are very understanding of the game's current mission to entice fresh demographics, and placing the sport's next generation of heroes on a higher pedestal is undoubtedly a key component of that. Therefore, perhaps MLB could broker an unwritten agreement to limit each league to just one over-30 competitor per Derby where applicable, thus encouraging its more youthful icons to take a leading role.

Under these hypothetical rules, my ideal Home Run Derby Lineup would include Trout, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera from the American League, and Stanton, Harper, Goldschmidt and Pederson from the senior circuit. Of course, Stanton recently suffered a devastating hand injury, and is expected to be out for between 4-6 weeks, precluding his involvement in the Derby. In which case, I would draft in either Rizzo, Nolan Arenado or Yasiel Puig as a replacement.

Just imagine the excitement those rosters would generate. If we slot Arenado into the prospective National League lineup, the average age of my ideal Derby field would be 25, while the average home run total this season would be 20. Indeed, all eight players I've earmarked for Derby participation currently rank among the top 17 home run hitters this season, which further illustrates the prevailing trend of young players dominating the game, and continues to embolden the need for MLB to enhance the visibility of said players.

Ultimately, the Home Run Derby serves one purpose: entertainment. Many traditionalists loathe the event, and certain players avoid it like the plague, fearing irreparable damage to their swing. But in the current climate of fan interest, it would be remiss of Major League Baseball not to use the Derby as a marketing opportunity for the next wave of heralded ballplayers. People are going to watch, so why not have them watch the future heroes of our game?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Selig Effect: Parity and Mediocrity in Major League Baseball

If the regular season ended today, Tampa Bay would face Kansas City and Houston would play the winner of a Twins-Yankees wildcard game in arguably the dullest postseason of my lifetime.

Now, I'm not here to bash the little guy, or accentuate the virtues of big market monopoly. After all, the teams that draft, develop and play better deserve to win, regardless of history. However, I am here to highlight the many inarguable facts about a flat baseball landscape, and the negative residue of Bud Selig's ceaseless drive for parity.

Firstly, on a national and international level, baseball suffers when its largest teams lie dormant. Generally, the causal fan, seemingly Rob Manfred's target audience, isn't going to spend three hours watching the Rays play the Royals at ghastly Tropicana Field. The obsessive fan will watch regardless, because he or she is furnished with a knowledge of the respective teams and their interesting back stories, but informal viewers, the very people Major League Baseball needs to stimulate in this technological age, want to see the brightest stars of the most famous teams playing on the largest stages. Very few people ever dreamed of watching the Rays play the Astros for the American League pennant, and such a series simply wouldn't capture the imagination.

We saw this global indifference to mid-market baseball last October, when the Royals and Giants played the least-watched seven-game World Series in history, as judged by TV ratings. Quite depressingly, the NFL's AFC Wildcard Game between the Chiefs and Colts was watched by more people than Game 7 of the World Series, giving credence to the notion that baseball has been left behind by glitzier, sharper and more instantaneous sports.

We live in a frantic age, with apps and gadgets and games competing for ever-larger slices of our ever-diminishing attention span. Accordingly, the children of this frenzied epoch won't invest time or energy in something they deem unworthy, something which won't deliver immediate and constant excitement. Sadly for baseball, the teams presently headed to October are virtually incapable of inspiring that level of stimulation which transcends the game and draws in even idle bystanders.

Right now, the NFL and NBA are soaring in popularity, largely because those respective leagues understand, and cater to, the modern imagination. Those leagues do an incredible job of elevating superstars to an enhanced position of visibility and, by extension, making competitive balance more palatable by highlighting a wide range of players. LeBron James, Andrew Luck, Odell Beckham Jr. They're all huge icons these days, while baseball stars, once the most famous athletes in the land, have been shoved down the pedestal.

It's incredibly frustrating, because baseball has a lengthy cast of exceptional young players beginning their careers right now, but, when compared to basketball and football, very little is being done to promote those starlets. Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Joc Pederson. These are bonafide stars who will be the face of baseball for a very long time. Yet, in the wider landscape of sporting fame, they lie in the shadows. Major League Baseball should be waxing lyrical about these players, putting their image front and centre for the world to see. At the All-Star Game, for instance, these guys should feature heavily, taking part in the Home Run Derby and winning young fans. But, no, even that has been botched, with eight Kansas City Royals presently slated to start, and superstars such as Miguel Cabrera being relegated to the bench, thanks to a ludicrous voting system.

Perhaps if Major League Baseball did a better job of promoting its young stars to the external masses, rather than the internal believers, the prospect of watching unconventional teams in the playoffs would appeal more. Say, for instance, that Minnesota's Byron Buxton was known by even casual fans, or that Houston's Carlos Correa had a greater share of the limelight. Then, it would be fun to watch those teams battle in the postseason, because a whole nation would be interested, rather than just the rather exclusive club of diehard fans. To feel truly special and compelling, a sport must surpass its own demographic. Baseball is currently struggling to do that.

Ultimately, MLB cannot encourage on-field parity then fail to stimulate interest in a wide array of teams. That, unfortunately, is a recipe for a disaster, leading to chronic indifference. We're seeing it right now, with the Astros and Twins and Royals playing well, but playing well in a vacuum. Aside from dedicated followers, very few people know anything about these teams, which detracts from the overall appeal and viability of baseball. Nowadays, on national radio and in the public conscience, baseball takes a back seat to rival sports even during the height of summer. Generally, people are more concerned with who the Lakers will take in the NBA Draft than whether the Astros can hold on to a playoff spot, which is gravely sad and deeply worrying for a lifelong baseball fan such as I.

Thus, in the wake of Bud Selig's retirement, we must ask a very pertinent question: is baseball improved by the present state of parity? This is a very complex issue. In a theoretical sense, I love the fact that any team can win. Every fan deserves the opportunity to dream, the opportunity to see his or her team in the World Series. But, in a practical sense, I'm not entirely sure competitive balance has made baseball a universally enriched game.

The entire American League is currently separated by ten games, as summer arrives. In one sense, this is exciting, with the playoff race promising to last well into September. But, by the same token, no team is distinguishable, no team is unique, and no team is demanding the attention of an increasingly insouciant nation.

Bud Selig had a vision of an even playing field across the Major Leagues, with competition permeating every sinew of the sport. Instead of that utopia, we currently rest in baseball purgatory, where the playing field is flat, and mediocrity reigns supreme. Baseball must seriously consider its future, before people turn off for good.