As Bud Selig (sort of) rides off into the sunset, MLB is Rob Manfred's to control. He has a very healthy game to oversee, as TV money is keeping the ship afloat and thriving in the open waters of sports in 2015. But, all is not well beneath the surface. Games are taking longer, TV ratings on a national level are dropping like a stone, and the mainstream interest in the game is lower than ever. While Rob Manfred's attempt to change the way the game is played is admirable and necessary, that's only one part of the puzzle to kick-starting a flagging league.
His number one goal should be making MLB stars back into crossover stars, and fast.
The stars of sports when baseball was king were baseball players. All the way up through the 1980's, the stars of MLB seemed to be the biggest in sports. But with the rise of the NFL, and even the NBA, those stars seemed to have faded. Why is that? It has everything to do with MLB just not seeming to mean the same thing it used to anymore.
Part of getting people back into MLB is with pace of play, and for sure that will do something. Many games take too long, especially those Yankees-Red Sox games which almost seem like 3 day cricket tests. Are pitch clocks the answer? I'm not a big enough student of the game to tell, but if the hardcore traditionalists in baseball have begun to accept that change is coming and is needed, then that has to be a good sign. Other sports leagues have been hellbent on making their games faster, and that has borne some fruit. But that's only a start.
Some will say that the loss of casual interest in Major League Baseball has something do with the precipitous drop in offense of the last decade or so. This seems strange as the league, particularly the commissioner wanted nothing more than to sweep away the years of PED use, which is now causing havoc and chaos when it's time to vote for the hall of fame. And the drop in offense has been preciptious; the 4.07 runs per game average this season was the lowest season 1981 when the average was 4 runs a game, and the drop since 2006 has been .81 runs per game. Is eliminating tactical (sabermetric) defensive shifts part of the solution? Again, I'm not knowledgeable enough to answer that question. Many will tell you that pitching has become even better, and as great pitchers can come back from catastrophic elbow injuries faster and the new ballparks that have popped up have become pitchers parks, offense has dropped.
More offense is part of the solution for sure, as are faster games. But the 8 year old in me doesn't find that as big of a problem as that the stars of Major League Baseball are way less visible than they should be.
As an 8 year old, I knew everything about Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and the stars of the day. I wasn't that big of a baseball fan when I was 8. I'm pretty sure that outside of maybe Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, MLB stars aren't visible enough to those in the country who could become baseball fans for life by knowing about them, and then wanting to become them. Kids around the country want to become Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, even Lionel Messi now, not necessarily Matt Harvey, Giancarlo Stanton, etc. And especially as Derek Jeter, the last major MLB crossover star has retired, the league desperately needs fresh blood to market, and it feels that no one is taking Jeter's spot in the void.
Someone cynical will probably say that's because none of them play for the Yankees or Red Sox, but Matt Harvey plays for the Mets, Clayton Kershaw is a Dodger, Mike Trout is an Angel, and those aren't small markets by any means. The league needs to find a way to market those stars, and the many others the league has better, and the lack of it falls at the feet of the commissioner's office. If he wants the league to modernize and keep up with the time, that doesn't stop when the game ends.
Rob Manfred wants to be different than the man he is succeeding, and that is admirable. But talk isn't necessarily action, and if all of that action is centered on making games faster, that will only be a drop in the bucket. Making baseball relevant again nationally starts and ends with making more stars, and the league doesn't have them right now.
Now is the time, commissioner Manfred. You want those local stars to become national stars? It starts and ends with you.