Baseball’s Shifting Future

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Baseball’s Shifting Future
| published April 20, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

Major League Baseball recently celebrated its 112th opening day. After an offseason of nearly five and a half months, the familiar cry of “play ball” was heard once again in stadiums across the country. Baseball has long been a part of the fabric of American culture and love of the game has been passed down from generation to generation. One of the appealing factors of baseball is its timeliness. The game enjoyed by our parent and grandparents is essentially the same game we enjoy today. They play on a diamond of clay and grass, nine men are on the field and those nine players throw, catch and hit a stitched white ball. Players change teams and teams sometimes change uniforms and even locations but the essence of baseball remains the same, year after year.

However, as with anything else, baseball has experienced changes. Some changes have been cosmetic in nature while others have been implemented to make the game safer or to enhance the experience of the fans. The basic structure of major league baseball has been in place for a long time, consisting of the franchises and their owners, the players and the commissioner’s office, established in 1921.

The office of Commissioner of Baseball was established, initially, to clean up the game in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919. Several Chicago White Sox players were accused of colluding with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds (see our archived article from August 2014: In the Best Interests of Baseball; Kevin Robbie). The allegations gave baseball a public black eye and the owners of the then 16 teams were anxious to protect their investments and clean up the game’s image. A Federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was installed as the game’s first commissioner in 1921.

Since the tenure of Judge Landis, the commissioner’s office has been seen, officially at least, as the game’s caretaker, as if overseeing a trust maintained on behalf of the fans. The baseball commissioner is regarded as the Chief Executive Officer of Major League Baseball and the affiliated Minor League Baseball. Among other things, the Commissioner’s Office regulates umpires, enforces baseball rules, oversees various owners’ committees, managers the negotiation of national media contracts, and provides an administrative structure for professional baseball.

Rob Manfred is the current Commissioner of Baseball and is the tenth person to hold that position. Manfred officially succeeded Bud Selig on January 25, 2015. Baseball experienced many changes under Selig during his twenty-three year tenure. Among them were the implementation of a stricter policy regarding performance-enhancing drugs, the use of instant replay to review all calls (excluding balls and strikes), interleague play, expansion to thirty teams and the division of each of the two leagues into three divisions. As always, these changes sparked debate not only in baseball circles but also among the media and fans with the overall integrity of the game an overriding issue.

As Commissioner Manfred assumed office, other changes—and potential changes—were swirling around the “grand old game.” One looming issue is the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the document which defines the relationship between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players’ Union. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2016.

Relevant issues concerning MLB are addressed within the framework of the CBA. In 2014, new rule changes included challenging umpires’ calls, home-plate collisions and catchers obstructing the plate and the expansion of instant replay.

One issue currently being studied by the commissioner involves the pace of games themselves. Baseball has always been played at a slower, leisurely pace compared to many other games such as basketball or ice hockey. MLB has instituted a pitch clock for games this season, similar to the shot clock used in basketball, requiring the pitcher to deliver a pitch within the allotted timeframe. Batters are also being held accountable for their actions, as umpires are restricting the number of times a hitter can step out of the batter’s box. A batter who violates the rule can be fined. The commissioner believes that these rules will boost offense and attract a younger set of fans. However, the biggest push-back against these rule changes is coming from players. Many of them feel it is change for the sake of change and that the new rules, if permanently instituted, could drive away more traditional fans. These players also believe that forcing hitters to stay in the box would detrimentally affect the psychology of the pitcher-batter matchup, which one pitcher, David Price of Detroit, described as a “chess match.” Although the season is still young, MLB estimates these changes have reduced the timespan for each game an average of eight minutes, from two hours and fifty-four minutes compared to the three hours and two minutes of 2014. If that pace is sustained, and if pace of game is an issue with potential fans, eight minutes isn’t likely to motivate someone to become a new baseball fan.

Major League Baseball has also expanded its use of technology in the form of instant replay in order to review the accuracy of certain types of calls by umpires. The system in place was implemented in 2014. As of the All-Star break in July, 2014, instant replay was generally well-received by the players, managers and umpires. MLB has expanded the types of calls which can be reviewed through instant replay, although this does not include balls and strikes.

Commissioner Manfred is a strong supporter of connecting fans, especially kids, to the game of baseball through the use of interactive media in order to enhance the experience of existing fans and to create new ones. In fact, this technology is becoming so interwoven into the game that the President and CEO of MLBAM, Robert Bowman, received consideration as a viable candidate to replace the previous commissioner. MLBAM - Major League Baseball Advanced Media—is a limited partnership of the owners and is the internet/media branch of Major League Baseball. MLBAM was founded in 2000 and generates an estimated $620,000,000 in revenue each year. It owns the “At Bat” app for iphone and iPad and also owns The purchase of the latter was made in order to make ticket purchases for fans more convenient. By 2015, it was estimated that the At Bat app was opened nearly six million times a day.

Baseball fans have always been somewhat obsessed with player and team statistics and it is fans who are driving the game’s aggressive push to gather more data on player and team performances. MLB believes that such a development, referred to as the field of sports analytics, will make fans more invested in their favorite teams and players which, in turn, could fuel more merchandise sales, too. New methods of collecting the data were begun in 2014 and are used in all thirty major league parks. In 2013, MLB started “Fancave,” a production hub in New York where fans are invited to watch every game that day and produce real-time social media content about their experiences. MLB also encourages Twitter and Instagram posts regarding stadiums, concessions, parking and games in progress.

Another looming issue for the new CBA negotiations is expansion of the amateur draft by creating an international draft. This question has been revisited several times over the last decade or so. The current Rule IV amateur draft was instituted in 1965 and is held in June of each year. The Rule IV draft lasts forty-one rounds. Each team selects players from the high school and college ranks and then signs them to professional contracts within spending limits. However, this draft only applies to players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Latin America has always been a hotbed for baseball players and Japan has produced big-league players, too. Increasingly, though, players from other areas of the world, even Europe and Australia, are scouted by major league teams always searching for new talent. Those players are signed as amateur free agents and a separate body of rules applies to scouting and signing them.

Arguments in favor of an international draft include providing structure to what is now an unregulated market, eliminating the crooked, unlicensed agents who sometimes represent and exploit international players and stimulating more global interest in baseball. Those opposing such a draft say that a draft could actually decrease the talent pool because spending limits would mean teams would decrease their international scouting budgets. Many people in the potentially affected countries feel that a draft would be a restriction of their trade, seeing players as economic assets. It would also be difficult to rank players as is done now in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The Rule IV draft categorizes players as high school or college and considers their commensurate levels of competition and experience. Those categories don’t necessarily work in areas such as the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua.

Another consideration is the complex issue of Cuban players, who are affected by political relations between their country and the United States. The commissioner’s office is working with the U.S. government on this point. The overriding question regarding an international draft should be what is in the best interests of those young men who just want an opportunity to play professional baseball. Working against that consideration is the fact that neither Major League Baseball nor the players’ union represent the interests of amateur players. On the other hand, neither side is actively blocking the idea of an international draft. The difficulty for the commissioner’s office would be in implementing the nuts-and-bolts of the draft itself so as to make it practical.

Major League Baseball certainly faces challenges in the future, as do the other major professional sports leagues. Issues such as the amateur draft, expansion of replay and enhancing the relevance of baseball for younger fans are important in terms of maintaining the sport’s traditions and adapting the game for the twenty-first century. On the whole, major league baseball is thriving. MLB’s attendance is robust and its 2014 revenues totaled a record $9 billion. In 2016, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, the commissioner’s office will be instrumental in bringing together disparate elements within baseball to draft a new CBA and uphold the integrity of the grand old game.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let ‘Em Play; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; January 28, 2015.

In the Best Interests of Baseball; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; August 12, 2014.