Kramer: Settle ties with a home run derby
David Kramer | Friday, February 12, 2021
Take it from the media experts at Nielsen. Take it from your resident fanatic. Take it from anyone, anyone at all: the MLB needs an upgrade.
For years, this axiom has pervaded the minds of MLB front office executives. The global pandemic has only catalyzed the downward spiral of worldwide baseball viewership, leaving the 2020 World Series with 32% fewer domestic viewers than the previous record low in 2012.
It comes as no surprise, then, that America’s most fragile professional league has bent over backwards to replenish its office with vibrant, dynamic and exciting minds in an effort to regain the former appeal of baseball’s golden age.
In arguably the most momentous baseball appointment of the last decade, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred elected Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. to his personal advisory board for the upcoming season. As senior advisor, Griffey will oversee the front office’s work in baseball operations, youth development and diversity.
Considered one of the most electrifying athletes of all time, Griffey dazzled in the outfield, amazed at the plate and oozed an infectious personality both on and off the field. No big leaguer exuded such a beautifully delicate balance between fun and focus, between diligence and antics quite like The Kid.
Perhaps the apex of this entertaining duality came in Griffey’s Home Run Derby appearances. A three-time champion in 1994, 1998 and 1999, The Kid almost effortlessly sent baseball after baseball into orbit, each swing even more electrifying than the last. The first nationally televised Derby in 1998 left viewers captivated by the grandeur and energy of the long ball frenzy.
Fittingly, then, Ken Griffey Jr. himself can help the MLB recapture the entertainment value of his Home Run Derby performances. He now holds the power to impose a radical change that just might save the fun of baseball as we know it: settling ties with a home run derby during regular season games.
The current structure of extra time in baseball, especially amidst a lingering health crisis, poses risks to the longevity and health of active players. Deadlocked teams often find themselves expending every available resource to emerge victorious in games that seem to stretch into oblivion. The strain induced on pitching staffs when platooning as many innings as necessary dilutes and invalidates the MLB’s commitment to promoting the health of its players.
Granted, the prospect of an enduring nail-biter keeps current MLB fans watching. But to save baseball, Rob Manfred faces an entirely different issue in the seasons to come: promoting the game to a new — and larger — audience of sports fans that crave immediacy, intensity and commotion.
As a stand-alone event, the Home Run Derby shows signs of relative appeal. Regular season games, still on their dangerously steep ratings decline that began in 2012, deserve a share of this heightened entertainment value.
Surely baseball purists would object to this outrageous proposal. But a derby-style format would satisfy the vast majority of fans — the audience that Manfred ought to target — by both reducing game times and ensuring an enthralling end to an otherwise painfully boring game.
Take the NHL as a case study. Since 2005, the National Hockey League has settled ties with a brief overtime period followed by a shootout, which brings a narrow subset of breakaway specialists to the limelight. In many ways, a shootout feels altogether tangential to the wide arsenal of skills necessary for regulation. Nevertheless, the NHL shortens its games, promotes the health of its players and ends a matchup in riveting fashion by limiting the environment of competition. In a shootout, only a single magical save or brilliant shot separates each team from an extra point in the standings.
In both the NHL and the MLB, extra time deserves extraordinary treatment. If two teams fail to settle the score in regulation, continuing play in identical fashion feels counterintuitive at best. Yes, a derby format strays from the beautiful intricacy of orthodox play. But in many ways, the greatest moments in baseball arise in the most unorthodox circumstances.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s career proves this reality best of all.