The NFL's got action. The NBA has personality. Meanwhile, MLB wonders how it can capture even a sliver of those things. It wasn't so long ago that baseball consumed the American sports consciousness. Through the '70s and ‘80s, World Series games commanded more than 30 million viewers annually. As recently as '91, the Twins-Braves classic drew 35 million sets on average. Game 7 had an incredible 50 million American viewers, or about 22 percent of the country.
Ratings have gone down for baseball, as has its cultural relevance. Television numbers have been cut in half over the last 30 years, and October's Game 7 between the Nats and Astros garnered only 23 million viewers. That was still nearly double what the rest of the series attracted. The reasons MLB has slipped from its proud pedestal are plentiful. Football has grown into an economic and entertainment force. The NFL overshadows everything, and college football is now a national product instead of a regional one. When MLB plays the World Series, it is competing against the hearts of a country in the middle of its beloved football seasons. We stop being all that interested in much else.
The NFL has the violence, the action, and the drama. One game can dictate the outcome of a season in college. That type of urgency doesn't exist until the playoffs for baseball. The sport also suffers from a lack of personalities and charisma. David Stern recognized decades ago that the health of the NBA was tied to the interest in its stars. Whatever Larry Bird or Magic Johnson did was directly correlated to the success of the league. The NBA knew that while America might not care about the Rockets or the Knicks, it absolutely cared about Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. This has morphed into a next level of celebrity culture for the league, where internal beefs (LeBron vs. Draymond), cities vs. ex-player (OKC vs. KD) and broadcaster vs. star (Barkley vs. everyone) were good theater. The NBA has the soap opera.
Baseball's DNA has always been more team-oriented than individualistic. While the sport is a series of one-on-one matchups, there's been a long history of eschewing personal gratification. Reggie Jackson was vilified for his ego. Manny Ramirez was snickered at as a clown. Slow home run trots get you thrown at. Flipping the bat could spark a brawl. Baseball's unwritten rules have long sought to strip the sport of showboats and preening.
In a vacuum, this is fine. There's something to be said about playing for each other and realizing that one player simply cannot carry the team. Just look at the lack of playoff success Mike Trout has. But baseball isn't played in a vacuum. It's a living, breathing entity full of humans with egos and personalities. It's also an entertainment product. And those personalities are the very things Americans care about in their sports these days. Russell Westbrook's wild clothing styles, Devin Booker's relationship with Kendall Jenner, and Kyrie Irving's flat-earth theory make them well known. Odell Beckham's pregame grabs, Baker Mayfield's dancing, and Jalen Ramsey's outrageous interviews move the needle. Baseball is missing all of this.
So when Fernando Tatis Jr. smashes a grand slam for the uber-interesting Padres, this should be a win for baseball. He's only 21 years old but already one of the best players in the game. He's a highlight machine for a surging young team that can ignite its city (which has lost its football team), and just went yard again. But because it's baseball, there's a lot of rules. Tatis' team was ahead by a large margin. It was late in the game. The count was 3-0. Because of that combination, he wasn't "supposed" to swing. He did. He created another highlight. Yet, the sport's gatekeepers felt like he was out of line. His opponent was mad. The old-school players around the league were mad. Tatis was asked to apologize.
Nothing summed up the ridiculousness of it all better than Tatis being asked if he even knew he had broken the code. Imagine being held to such a complicated set of invisible rules you weren't even aware if you had violated them? When the Lions were (rarely) up in the fourth quarter and the hole broke open, people didn't ask Barry Sanders to fall down. When the Lakers are up late and LeBron gets an outlet pass, we don't demand that he immediately toss the ball out of bounds. But when one of the most exciting young players in the game gets a pitch he can hit to the moon, he should watch it buzz by and walk to first.
Baseball lacks action. Baseball lacks personality. Tatis Jr. provided both this week. And yet he was somehow in the wrong.