Baseball has long hunted for a better way into the headlines, some way to breakthrough and seem more hip or at least modestly up to date.
One of its digital arms created Cut4 almost a decade ago to spice up its social media brand. Lighter content, GIFs, campiness, anything but the rigid archaicness long associated with the game. Baseball wants to retain, but put to the back, the crowd who remembers Harmon Killebrew either through seeing him once upon a time or watching black-and-white Home Run Derby replays on ESPN decades ago. The league is desperate for a feel which resonates with the coming fan, not the graying one.
What Major League Baseball lacked, the NBA retained organically. Personality. Individual marketing. A crossover between apparel and personal brands so expansive, room existed for bit players to grow -- just ask Nick Young. Single players spoke their minds often, at times in front of the camera, others on social media. The freedom of expression led to another free: free headlines. From Kevin Durant’s burner account to Joel Embiid’s perpetual Twitter smack, the NBA’s marketing ran itself.
The league was about chatter, and blips and combative public words, which baseball had never been about. In an attempt to modernize, Major League Baseball thrusted out a pre-2019 season marketing campaign based on “letting the kids play.” A central figure in the main commercial was young Houston star Alex Bregman, who leaned into his mic to bust up the generic statement making going on around him. “We’re going to win this World Series and the next one,” Bregman said with a smile. Seven months after the commercial’s release, Bregman apologized for carrying his bat to first base in the World Series.
Baseball’s offseason scandal did do one thing: it produced headlines which led to the league finally drawing from its inner NBA. On camera, from coast to coast, players called out other players. Cody Bellinger sniffed at the Astros, Nick Markakis threatened them, Howie Kendrick flatly condemned them. “If you cheat, you cheat,” he said.
Houston’s Carlos Correa pivoted to take many of the complainers to task. He began his personal pushback on MLB Network, of all places, before expanding to a discussion with local Houston writers. He contended many players didn’t know what they were talking about. Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki was among his targets.
Since then, baseball has been able to continue with the NBA’s blueprint. The outside-of-the-field griping leads to intrigue about actual play (massive player movement in that league also helps in a way baseball will never reach). In this case, when the Astros took the field, what would happen?
They were booed. Hard. It was predictable. The first game at their shared facility in West Palm Beach included vocal disdain mostly for players fans likely don’t know. But, the lineup of minor-leaguers didn’t matter that first day. The concern was to target the big, orange H in all its forms. Baseballs began to hit Astros players -- seven in five games. Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard petulantly made Houston leadoff man George Springer wait among boos before throwing the first pitch.
This is easy for fans. Nothing is subjective. There is no wonder or counter argument like those which existed in the steroid era. The Astros are the convicted cheaters, the enemy, plain as day.
Which helps. Not the path, no one would recommend that. However, a non-New York enemy -- especially one filled with talent in a large market -- helps MLB to what it can’t produce on its own because the games or season are too long. A clear-cut bad guy will be rolling town to town in 2020, giving both fans and opposition opportunity to express their thoughts.
Social media will buzz. Individuals will have another round of fresh questions each time the Astros touchdown at a new airport. The cheaters are here, what do you think? And out of this black cloud will come further comments, verbal spats which were previously reserved for the clubhouse or group text chains. They are in the open now, which leaves MLB feeling similar to its most dialed-in three-letter brethren, which was a goal all along. Though the league would have preferred a different path to get there.
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