In a recent article for ESPN, Jayson Stark, called attention to a key cultural difference between Major League Baseball and other professional sports: baseball players rarely speak publicly about politics.
In a discussion with Chuck Todd for “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast,” Stark said that the reaction to the piece from those within the game was surprising.
“I really didn’t get as much reaction from people inside the game as I expected I would,” Stark said. “I just think that goes back to the original premise of the piece, which is that baseball increasingly has become a depoliticized zone.”
“In baseball, for whatever reason, the culture has always been to suppress personality and individuality,” Stark said.
It’s not that the people who play baseball don’t have political opinions or big personalities. The World Baseball Classic, which wrapped up in Los Angeles last week, showed what happens when you bring together professional baseball players from around the world. Compared to the staid traditions of MLB, the diversity of opinions and backgrounds within the WBC sends a powerful message.
Stark believes that the MLB, which has struggled to connect with younger fans, could learn something from the WBC’s on-field product as well. While the opportunity to represent one’s country sometimes inspires a sense of unrestrained passion and enthusiasm that is otherwise missing from the major leagues, the World Baseball Classic creates a chance for that energy to cross cultural boundaries.
“To watch the Dominican team just play with so much joy and so much genuine passion, it makes watching the games so much more fun just to watch those players react to everything that happens,” Stark said. “It makes being in the ballpark way more fun. And I think baseball could learn a lesson from the World Baseball Classic about the way baseball really ought to be.”
Although the game has seen a resurgence in personality in recent years – thanks in part to players such as Bryce Harper and Adam Jones - Stark believes that there is still more to be done to update the game. At the top of the list, speeding the pace of the game, a goal that could attract a generation to baseball whose attention spans are shorter than ever before.
Despite the annual ritual of rule updates to baseball that are meant to speed things up, Stark things the way to fix the pace of the game is to focus on the strike zone.
“The strike zone technically has not changed,” over time, Stark said. “But what is actually called a strike by umpires has dramatically changed.”
Stark noted that umpires have effectively dropped the strike zone two inches below the knees, and raising it back would increase “pace of action” because it would keep more pitches in play. He also believes that the number of mound visits per game needs to be reduced, and says that a timeout system should be considered.
Rule changes aside, the 2017 season is rich with storylines. The Chicago Cubs are coming off a historic year in which they broke their 108-year championship drought. But despite a strong, young roster, Stark is doubtful about a Cubs repeat. He notes that the 1970s Big Red Machine is the only National League team to repeat as champions in 95 years.
Even with the uptick in interest after the Cubs victory, Stark does not believe that baseball “will ever occupy the same place in the American soul that it did 25 years ago.” The competition from other sports, and the downward pressure of shrinking attention spans, make that all but impossible. But if the WBC is any guide, baseball can still be fun if the players are allowed to be themselves.