Baseball isn’t dying. But the only way to get people who say things like this for a national audience to talk about the sport with less pessimism is to drum up controversy. Good sports content pits two sides against each other. The more passionate and physical, the better.
This is deeply depressing to true fans. It is painful to see baseball reduced to a second-class citizen and only pushed into the spotlight for sensational reasons. And if you don’t think this isn’t the way things are here in 2019, you haven’t been paying attention.
Consider the bat flip. Something that rarely happens and has no discernible impact on the actual game. It’s been the go-to baseball topic for the media heavy hitters since Jose Bautista in 2015. It’s been the best way for the sport to get social engagement from casual fans and the general public.
And this interest is fueled by distaste and derision for the faction out there who doesn’t enjoy the celebratory move. Conflict sells. Major League Baseball can sit on both sides of the fence. As long as people are talking about the game, that’s good.
Which brings us to a more conspiratorial point. The fact that bat flips, like the one done by Tim Anderson earlier this week, still result in bench-clearing brawls after all these years is inexplicable. Yes, the desire to bean a happy opponent is real. But there’s absolutely no reason MLB couldn’t have already made such retaliation cost-prohibitive.
The suspensions for intentionally plunking someone are laughably inadequate. The only way to legislate this out of the game is to legislate with an iron fist. Put a 25- or 30-game penalty on the table and you’d see discretion become the better part of valor, and quickly.
I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t particularly care for bat flips or showmanship, as someone who thinks sending a message with a fastball is and always has been part of baseball. So why hasn’t baseball brass done it yet?
Because these incidents are great theater. They may say bench-clearing brawls mar the sport, but they provide incredible B-roll. All publicity is good publicity at this point. Hordes of players streaming out of the dugout excite the casual fan more than anything else on a baseball diamond.
And the truth of the matter is that those who don’t already love baseball are far more important than those who do. The quest to expand the tent, especially in the coming generations, is a top priority.
So do the calculus and ask yourself: Why would the powers-that-be take steps to eliminate the thing that puts the sport in front of the most eyeballs?
Baseball wants the fighting and bat-flip intrigue because it needs, desperately, to stay relevant by any means necessary.