DAN BICKLEY

MLB needs edgy new era to reverse course of disinterest

Jun 10, 2019, 6:23 PM | Updated: Jun 11, 2019, 10:11 am
Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy, left, gestures while running up the first base line after hitting a...
Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy, left, gestures while running up the first base line after hitting a solo home run off of San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, right, during the first inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Sunday, June 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Baseball needs a revolution. A new generation of trash talkers and bat flippers. An army of anarchists to burn the unwritten rules to the ground.

It’s the only way out for a sport dying of disinterest.

Proof is everywhere, from the grey-haired demographics (average age of baseball fan: 55) to the hours spent watching on any given night, when pitchers stall and batters scratch and the average game has increased by 30 minutes since 1981.

Strikeouts are up. The chorus line of relief pitchers is relentless. Defensive shifts have disoriented the audience and tilted the pinball machine. Home runs are the only reliable form of entertainment. Too many critics blame analytics, choosing the easy disdain of math nerds and numbers.

The problem is the players. Their stupid code of conduct. And the sport’s utter lack of personality.

The NHL has the same foundational problem, another sport that squeezes players into a box, where individuality is frowned upon, where only the elite are allowed to control the narrative, attracting attention to themselves.

This became clear for the billionth time over the weekend, when the Dodgers’ Max Muncy hit a baseball deep into McCovey Cove. Instead of laughing at his own wretchedness, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner barked at Muncy to quit admiring the airborne projectile. It was like telling a NASA crowd at Cape Canaveral to quit looking at newly-launched rocket. It’s frowning on the very entertainment you’re offering the paying public.

“I think that’s where sports is heading. It’s not just baseball,” former Diamondbacks star Mark Grace said. “Sports has become a look-at-me era. It’s all about who can do the best end zone celebration. Who can do the best slam dunk and go back downcourt doing something (celebratory) … baseball is no different.”

Yes, baseball stubbornly insists otherwise.

What other sport frowns on oversized displays of passion?

Sports fans want to be exhilarated by human accomplishment. They want to feel what it would be like to hit a ball 500 feet. The answer is not running around the bases with your head down, trying to mute the moment and make the feat disappear as soon as possible.

There are players who are trying to be heard. As Bumgarner fumed, Muncy challenged him further. He gestured for the Giants ace to come meet him on the base paths. After the game, he said if Bumgarner was so upset, he should’ve retrieved the baseball from the ocean.

It was my favorite moment of the season, from a Dodgers team I’m finding impossible to dislike.

The rest of baseball needs to follow suit.

Instead, the sport is trying to shave minutes from the average length of game, which does nothing to address the root issues. The game is stuck in an evolutionary pothole, where high-velocity fastballs have muted the action, where 10 minutes can roll by without a ball in play, where analytics and defensive shifts have prompted hitters to swing for the fences.

The only way out of this mess is through the power and appeal of unique personalities, to roll out new sensibilities inside a tired sport. Fans love to see bursts of emotion from obnoxiously stoic baseball players, regardless of the sportsmanship attached. Batters should be celebrated for grandiose bat flips and emotional displays, as they are a profession that fails over 70 percent of the time. Why can’t they flaunt a rare triumph?

Meanwhile, any pitcher who hits a batter above the waist should be fined, regardless of stated intent. And that batter should be placed on second base, to bolster the consequences.

That will solve the retaliatory nonsense that comes from pitchers with bruised egos, the ones who often respond by plunking the teammate of a player who dared to celebrate his own achievement.

That’s the worst kind of behavior imaginable.

“That’s not the way baseball should be played. That’s B.S.,” Grace said. “If you’re upset because you gave up a home run, make better pitches.”

Better yet: Have a good laugh. Tip your cap to the hitter for a change. Remember that pitchers are still well ahead of the game, even in this current era of highly-juiced baseballs. And just remember that, at one time, all aspiring professionals refer to Major League Baseball with the same reverential term.

They call it, “The Show.”

So make it one. Before it’s too late. Before you’ve bored America all the way to your own grave.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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MLB needs edgy new era to reverse course of disinterest