Baseball is old and slow.
That’s not necessarily a knock — my grandparents were old and slow, yet I still loved them — and Major League Baseball has made some changes in recent years geared toward modernizing the game. But there’s no denying that other sports, like football and basketball, are light years ahead of baseball when it comes to evolving with the times.
And Bryce Harper wants that to change.
The reigning National League MVP recently spoke with ESPN The Magazine about several topics, including his desire to breathe life into a sport so often bogged down by its traditional roots. There’s something elegant about baseball and all its pageantry, but Harper’s blueprint for a more entertaining product is exactly what the game needs to survive and thrive amid changes in consumer behavior.
“Baseball’s tired,” Harper said. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.
“If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.”
Basically, baseball lacks star power, in large because unwritten rules and other constraints deprive players of the same opportunities that NFL and NBA players enjoy by virtue of their ability to create individual identities and brands. There’s something to be said for being a team-first guy who lets his play do the talking, sure, but it’s almost frowned upon to show emotion in baseball, whereas the NFL and the NBA embrace the whole freedom of expression concept — whatever it entails.
“Endorsements, fashion — it’s something baseball doesn’t see,” Harper told ESPN The Magazine. “In soccer, it’s (David) Beckham or Ronaldo. In basketball, it’s (Stephen) Curry and LeBron (James). In football, it’s Cam (Newton). Football and basketball have such good fashion.”
For years, showboating in baseball — or the mere thought that someone is showboating or breaking one of the sport’s “unwritten rules” — has accompanied a mindset that retribution for such is possible, if not inevitable. As Harper suggests, it’s time to change that way of thinking.
There doesn’t need to be a diamond full of over-the-top jerks, but too many players approach the game with a stick up their butt. And that hurts the product from an entertainment standpoint, especially when it’s obvious there’s some untapped personality inside certain individuals.
“Jose Fernandez is a great example,” Harper said, talking about the Miami Marlins’ polarizing ace. “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”
“If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun,” Harper told ESPN The Magazine. “You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”
Athletes with larger-than-life personalities forever will be loved by some and hated by others. Harper himself is proof. It’s a good problem to have, though, as it makes for more hero-villain storylines, more emotional attachment to games and, overall, a more captivating product.
Unfortunately, baseball, in too many ways, is stuck in the past.
Thumbnail photo via Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports Images
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