It is expected this coming January that longtime Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig will step down from his tenure as commissioner, a position he has held since 1992. Assuming he does retire, his 25 year reign as commissioner will mark the second longest of any MLB commissioner, right behind that of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The legacy that Mr. Selig will leave behind on the game of baseball is a murky one. When asked about his legacy during the 2014 All Star Game, Mr. Selig was prompt in delivering a well crafted, seemingly pre-scripted response, “I’d say the economic reformation of the sport [is the legacy] because there have been so many manifestations of that . . . We have the best competitive balance we’ve ever had and it’s led to so many other things.’’ Both assertions by Mr. Selig are largely true. Baseball has experienced exponential revenue growth over Selig’s reign.
It will be hard for Mr. Selig’s successor to match old Bud’s love and respect for the game of baseball. Bud is often praised for the depth of his baseball knowledge and his deep respect for the game’s long and rich history. Unfortunately Mr. Selig’s reign will be viewed as tarnished by many due to the undisputable damage the ‘Steroid Era’ had on the game. The ‘Steroid Era’ spanned from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s and brought numerous home runs that served as a driving force for baseball’s economic growth and popularity amongst average sports fan. Who didn’t love the Sosa- McGwire homerun chase of 1998? Who wasn’t drawn to their television set to watch Barry Bonds smash a whopping 73 homeruns in 2001?
It is estimated that the MLB currently generates around $9 billion in annual revenue. Over the past two decades under Commissioner Selig, the sport has enjoyed a near 500% rise in annual revenue. In 1992, the first year Selig took office, baseball was generating only about 1.9 billion dollars in annual revenue adjusted for inflation. With the average player salary hovering around $3.3 million and the Dodgers recently selling for $2.15 billion dollars, economic growth seems to be a given for the next baseball commissioner. Sounds like all is peachy for Selig’s successor, right?
Not so fast.
Looking past the glitter and shine of baseball’s economic growth over the last 20 years under commissioner Selig, another far less rosy trend in the game of baseball is looming. Despite efforts by the Selig administration, several crucial issues must be addressed in the next commissionership if the game is to endure as our national past time.
In 1963, Major League Baseball games averaged a mere 2 hours and 25 minutes. Those were the days before batting gloves and body armor, the days when the umpire said “play ball”, the batter dug into the box and the pitcher toed the rubber. The incessant fidgeting with Velcro straps and batting gloves wasn’t even possible. Today, baseball games are averaging just over 3 hours per contest and a 4-hour game is no surprise. Some legitimate reasons can be cited for the cause of such prolonged pace of play.
Today, young hitters are being trained to be more disciplined at the plate and work the pitcher rather than swinging at the first pitch. In 1992, MLB teams averaged about 138 pitches per game. MLB teams today average nearly 150 pitches per game. OBP (on base percentage) and pitches per at bat are becoming increasingly popular performance metrics for front offices around the league.
However it is not merely the change in approach that is troubling for the future of baseball, but rather players utter disregard for the pace of play. Players feel it is within their right to take their time in between pitches for a multitude of reasons. For Jonny Gomes, it’s the helmet that never seems to settle right on his head, requiring endless adjusting before Captain America can step in the box to hit. Troy Tulowitzki’s constant tightening of batting gloves and body armor amounts to nearly 28 seconds of time between each pitch. For pitchers, look no further than Jon Papelbon’s signature pre-pitch stare down. While much of the responsibility for this nonsensical, self indulgent behavior resides solely on the players, it will never be amended unless the MLB and its umpires are serious about enforcing the already existing rules of the game. For example, rule 6.02 states that “the batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly” without stepping out other than for a list of specified reasons. There is also rule 8.04, which requires a pitcher to deliver the pitch within 12 seconds of receiving the ball if the bases are empty. A rule is only a rule if there are consequences when it is broken. Fines, suspensions, or punishments of some sort must be used to combat such senseless behavior.
Rather than addressing the issue head on as the MLB has shown to do with other nagging issues, the league has chosen to sit on its hands and even exacerbate the problem by using replay. While the league continues to demand more of its fans through higher ticket prices and $9 beers, the next generation of young baseball fans is falling asleep on the couch, grabbing the Xbox controller or switching channels to find something of a quicker pace like basketball or soccer. Choosing to ignore the waning interest in baseball amongst America’s youth is shameful and will have dire consequences for the next generation of baseball.
Despite the steady growth in MLB attendance ratings that baseball executives will quickly cite when asked about the state of the game, something they will fail to mention is the dramatic decline in TV ratings, especially for baseball’s premier events such as the All Star Game and postseason play. In 1992, when Selig took over the commissionership, the World Series drew a rating of 20.2 (over 20,200,000 households). Last year’s world series between the Red Sox and Cardinals only drew a rating of 8.9 (8,900,000). Last year was no anomaly; over the past 6 seasons the fall classic has averaged a mere 9.16 rating, a sharp drop from the early ‘90s and earlier when games would frequently have ratings over 20. The MLB All Star Game TV ratings have followed a similar path, going from a 14.9 in 1992 to not even topping a 10.0 since 2001.
Clearly there is a problem manifesting here. The fact of the matter is, baseball continues to mean less and less to our children, whom have turned in their Louisville Slugger’s for soccer balls and lacrosse sticks. If the next commissioner loves baseball as much as Mr. Selig says he loves baseball, he will hopefully cite reasons other than economic growth in the game when looking back on his own legacy.
Data and images courtesy of:
Georgetown University Class of 2015
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