Baseball’s Image Problem: Recapping a Year of Questionable Decision Making from the MLB
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
The night of November 3rd, 2020 will be one that is remembered forever in American history. Major League Baseball celebrated its greatest defensive players at the 2020 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards Show and Alex Gordon finished his career with his eighth gold glove! Is that way off-base?
Much to the chagrin of baseball fans, the MLB made another head-scratching decision in 2020 by scheduling a night to celebrate the sport during one of the most important elections in recent history. The Gold Glove Awards Show would have been a great event to show highlights, talk to the winners, and get some insight on the new defensive index that was used to calculate the winners, but it seems like baseball hates the thought of doing anything positive for the game. It has been a little under a month since the Los Angeles Dodgers were crowned World Series Champions, but even that was overshadowed by the questionable decision making of the MLB.
The championship was quickly overshadowed when news broke that Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner tested positive for COVID-19, was pulled from Game 6, and still returned to the field to celebrate. Despite the MLB asking him to confine himself, Turner was seen on the field hugging teammates, kissing his wife and sitting next to his manager Dave Roberts, who has survived cancer in the last decade. During all of this, commissioner Rob Manfred was on the field conducting interviews about Turner’s positive COVID test, while the internet had a field day making fun of the situation. ESPN columnist Jeff Passan reported that the COVID tests conducted on the day of Game 6 were delayed, and that Turner’s results from the previous day were “inconclusive.”
In knowing all of this, you have to wonder what the MLB’s thought process was. There is an All-Star third baseman during the World Series who had an inconclusive test result a day before Game 6, and the league waited for the next round of testing and let the game go on as planned. Each team in the postseason had been quarantined in resorts, so a potential positive test would compromise the safety of the bubbles. Yet, the Dodgers were one win away from a championship, so the MLB decided to go full steam ahead and hope that there would be no spread.
That of course is an optimistic thought given the nature of this pandemic but also a stupid one. The Turner news was a bad look for the MLB, but luckily to this date there have been no reports of any Rays or Dodgers that have contracted the virus since Game 6. What if the Rays forced a Game 7? What if Justin Turner playing in Game 6 led to the infections of other players? Would the MLB have paused the series right before a decisive Game 7 or would they have played the following night anyway and risked having an outbreak affecting players and their families who were invited to the postseason bubble?
These recent events capped off a year of questionable decisions from the MLB. From letting players go unpunished in cheating scandals undertaken by both the Astros and the Red Sox in their World Series winning seasons to Rob Manfred saying this week that he would like to make the World Series a neutral site event every year, there just seems to be no feel by baseball’s top brass on what fans really want to see in the sport.
The common denominator in all of these issues is Rob Manfred’s leadership. Attempting to make baseball more marketable and fast paced, Manfred has implemented a new pace of play rule every year since he became commissioner in 2015. However, the average time per nine-inning game has actually increased since Manfred’s first year in office. In 2015, the average length of a nine-inning game was 2 hours and 56 minutes, and the average time of games during this shortened season was 3 hours and 7 minutes.
In looking at the aggregate numbers there are a couple of plausible explanations. The number of pitchers per game has steadily increased over the last four years, with the number reaching 4.43 in 2020. One could believe that an uptick in run scoring would lead to more pitching changes per game, but the league run average in 2020 (9.29 runs per game) was a whole run lower than in 2000 (10.28 runs per game). The 2000 season was the run scoring peak of the steroid era but even back then only 3.54 pitchers were used per game. An increase in pitching changes would certainly be a recipe for longer games but these 2020 numbers came after Manfred implemented the three-batter minimum for each pitcher, in an attempt to reduce pitching changes.
It is hard to pinpoint why Manfred’s best efforts have fallen so incredibly short. It does seem like he has the best interest of the game in mind but he has routinely done the opposite of what most baseball fans would appreciate. Instead of constantly changing the fundamental aspects of the game, I have a few recommendations for the commissioner so that baseball can put an embarrassing 2020 behind it.
Baseball should be focused on growing the game. Basketball and football are so much more marketable than baseball because they keep it simple. For instance, both sports embrace their stars and give them a platform, endless endorsements, and instant highlights. Mike Trout has been the consensus best player in baseball for nearly a decade and if any typical American saw him walking down the street they wouldn’t pay him any mind. It is inconceivable that you could present that same scenario with LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes without them getting mobbed for autographs and pictures.
Regarding highlights, MLB has notoriously forbidden fans from sharing highlights and content without their consent. One example comes from 2018, when Twitter user @PitchingNinja, who was a well-respected account among baseball fans and people who were new to the game alike, had his account suspended after the MLB caught wind that he was sharing videos of impressive pitching performances. His account was ultimately brought back and he is now an independent contractor that can post their content and grow the game. However, it should not have to be so heavily restricted. By limiting the channels, accounts, and options that people have to watch the game, it is limiting the reach that baseball can have in the social media era. Ultimately, baseball should embrace fans injecting their content into the social media stratosphere, instead of trying to stifle it.
It has been a rough year for baseball but there are some positives that can be drawn from it. Despite a rocky start, the season survived a pandemic season (albeit the hiccup at the end) and crowned an exciting championship roster that played the game right. There are some emerging superstars in the league like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cody Bellinger who should be around for a long time. And through it all, baseball has always been considered America’s pastime. However, it is up to MLB’s leadership to adapt and create a better image for the game. If not, the rest of the sports industry will continue to surpass it, and baseball may be passed its time.
 Ronald Blum, Manfred says 100% chance of MLB season, new proposal soon, apnews.com (June 10, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/0f9ecf4c40e64c956ca4d98e5874f398
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 Does Rob Manfred Hate Baseball? supra.
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