Making baseball fun again

To attract new fans, MLB needs new storytellers

“No more talk. Let the kids play.”

Ken Griffey Jr.’s parting shot, the conclusion to a widely-hailed advertisement promoting the Major League Baseball postseason last fall, is meant to feel defiant. The ad, after all, is full of bat flips and exuberant players celebrating their on-field accomplishments—just the sort of thing that baseball’s “unwritten rules,” a.k.a. the “talk” that Griffey admonishes, would discipline and punish. Conservatism can’t stand in the way of fun.


And yet, rather than proud defiance, we might more accurately read the ad as a plaintive plea, a desperate appeal, to the arbiters of those unwritten rules and their supporters in the stands. They must “let” the kids play, after all. Compared to their equivalents in football and basketball, baseball fans are older and whiter. The players, management, and owners are also less diverse. Adam Jones had good reason to assert, in 2016, that “baseball is a white man’s sport.”

For the first 150 years of baseball history, being “a white man’s sport” served it well, whatever plaudits it may have accrued for Jackie Robinson’s integrative efforts. But in the face of a diversifying American consumer base — one that prefers looking to the future, rather than gauzy nostalgia — the writing is on the wall: the game needs to change.

Hence the dilemma: how to reach new fans without alienating the fans baseball already has. And hence the dual implication of Griffey’s statement, and the choice of Griffey himself.

Dubbed “The Kid” as a transcendent star for the Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, Griffey was known as much for his penchant for wearing his cap backwards during batting practice (which he replicates in the ad) as he was for hitting homeruns and making acrobatic catches in the outfield. He was celebrated, in other words, for just the kind of “youthful” exuberance that his voice now promotes. And without question he attracted younger viewers and people of color, not to mention corporate attention from Nike, Pepsi, and others. But, in the long run, Griffey didn’t transform baseball’s consumer demographics, and it seems unlikely that any of the players featured in the ad—even diverse All-Stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, Mookie Betts, and Nolan Arenado—will either.

It’s not that these players aren’t fun. Quite the contrary. The problem is one of narration. Not only are baseball’s stories frequently backward-looking (obsessed with matters of memory like who belongs in the Hall of Fame), they are slow, they are localized, and they are usually presented by older, whiter voices. The NBA and NFL are truly national leagues with a pace of play conducive to the online spread of highlight video. Baseball’s appeal is constrained by regional interest and the often-plodding pace of the game.

This is not the kind of thing that can be fixed with media rights deals or pitch clocks alone. To complement a changing game, baseball needs new storytellers — and not aging former players like Griffey, however anti-establishment he might once have seemed.

In other words, the emotional, exuberant kids at play shouldn’t just be on the field. They should also be the ones doing the talking.

To its credit, MLB is trying to enlist young people to tell baseball stories in different ways. Through efforts like the league’s “Cut4” web presence and affiliated podcast, as well as the goofy exploits of the duo known as “Cespedes Family Barbeque,” the league is attempting to give “the kids” a voice at the microphone. And the addition of Jessica Mendoza to ESPN’s national baseball broadcast crewcertainly helps make the case that the game’s arbiters are opening the doors to a wider constituency.

But such efforts are too few and too far between. The call for transformation isn’t full-throated. And until it is — until the league stops asking for permission to “let the kids play” and starts demanding that they do; until “Turn Ahead the Clock Night” becomes a league-wide mantra rather than a promotional one-off — baseball’s narrative problem will persist.

The game’s history and traditions are rich, but they threaten to suffocate its future. The “unwritten rules” and the game’s entrenched conservatism are standing in the way of fun. It will take more than bat flips and a backwards ballcap to let it through.

Noah Cohan is author of the forthcoming book “‘We Average Unbeautiful Watchers’: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports” (University of Nebraska Press). He is lecturer and M.A. program coordinator in American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Read a collection of stories looking at the statistics, physics, business and cultural significance of baseball.

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