The MLB is not well known for its ability to market stars. It doesn’t know how to make the excitement of the current youth movement of players and turn that into something that sells tickets. That much is clear, considering that MLB attendance was down 4% this season from last, dipping below the 70 million mark, and giving rise to much pearl-clutching about how the sport is dying.
But baseball isn’t dying. It has become more vital and filled with youthful vigor than ever before, and that’s something that the old guard hasn’t know how to deal with up until now. We here a lot of crowing from gray-at-the-temples broadcasters about the unwritten rules of the game, and about how bat flips are a mark of bad sportsmanship, and players should control their emotions.
Be stoic, they say. Keep that jersey tucked. Keep your eyes down around the base.
Then, ahead of Tuesday night’s NL Wild Card game, the MLB did something no one expected. They released an ad that said: be wild, young ones. Be energetic. Be bold. Be exciting.
It’s right there in the name: rewrite the rules.
What’s more remarkable here, once we move beyond the initial chills the ad gives (I am truly a sucker for a good hype video), is the content itself. The video doesn’t focus on the tried and true stars of the past several years like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. Instead we are treated to Giancarlo Stanton, Ronald Acuña Jr., Yasiel Puig (and his tongue), Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, and more.
Beyond just the focus on young, exciting players, the MLB also appears to be recognizing and embracing that more of its greatest assets right now are the numerous players of color that have helped elevate the game. Players who come from places like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. Players like Arenado, who though born in the United States is the child of a Cuban father and an American mother of Cuban and Puerto Rican ancestry.
What often gets taken for granted in baseball today, as we think of it in terms of being America’s pastime, is that it is no longer only America’s game. The sport has taken root in Latin American and Asian countries, and the old staid notion of what it means to “play the right way” is one that many of the best players in baseball today don’t seem to care about or subscribe to.
This makes the last generation nervous. It makes them take to their broadcast booths and talk about what should and shouldn’t happen on the field. Don’t be excited. Don’t watch your home run. Don’t be too good.
This last point seemed to be what people were saying when Ronald Acuña Jr. was hit with an intentional pitch earlier in the summer, all because someone didn’t like how he had too many home runs in his young career. It was, somehow, Acuña’s fault he got hit, because he was just too darned good at his job.
Baseball is filled with these absurdities. Puig has constantly been called out for his behavior and cited as unprofessional. He is also one of baseball’s most magnetic talents. It’s impossible to look away when you see him on the field. Likewise when Jose Bautista hit that unbelievable postseason home run at home in Toronto, his bat flip was probably the only thing anyone remembers about that game.
What the MLB has done with this simple one-minute video is something unique and amazing. They (or at least one very smart video intern) are saying that it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation. That now is the right moment for baseball to emerge from its crisp, unbending chrysalis, and take a new form. And that these new young faces aren’t doing things the wrong way, they’re doing things their way.
Perhaps what it’s really saying is that there is room in this sport we love for more than one right way.
And like the spot says in its final, simple message: “No more talk. Let the kids play.”