Broken Promises, Broken Trust

Tim Anderson was suspended for an odd reason last season after a benches-clearing situation. (via Keith Allison)

Have you ever dealt with a parent post-divorce who keeps disappointing you with broken promises? Have you, despite everything, allowed yourself to feel a little bit of hope, only to have that hope inevitably dashed again? 

That’s what being a fan of Major League Baseball has felt like in 2019. Against a litany of promises made to address issues facing the game this season, to make positive change and allow baseball to grow, MLB has continued to excuse and defer, sending mixed signals about where their priorities lie. Here are three of the greatest disappointments of the season.

MLB’s system, from the ground up, has given off mixed signals to players, media, and fans about the celebration of on-field emotion and swagger. 

Promise: In the lead-up to the 2018 postseason, MLB launched its “Rewrite the Rules” campaign with filled with bat flips, home runs, pitchers celebrating strikeouts, and the all-around joy that should be experienced while playing sports. The spot ends with the king of baseball swag, Ken Griffey, Jr., saying “No more talk. Let the kids play.”

The Let The Kids Play campaign resurfaced at the beginning of the 2019 season, with players like Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Mike Trout celebrating the display of emotion and swagger on the field. This would be a welcome change from the mindset that treats shows of emotion like the scourge of the earth.

Promise Broken: Enter Chicago White Sox Shortstop Tim Anderson. Anderson, then on a season-opening hot streak and, eventually, the winner of the 2019 AL batting title, hit a walk-off home run against the Kansas City Royals. It was an epic display: He didn’t really flip the bat as much as throw the damn thing down like Chris Rock drops the mic at the end of every stand-up special. His work was done. The Sox had won.

The Royals responded in kind, hitting Anderson with a pitch the next time they faced the White Sox. A little pushing and shoving and trash-talking ensued, and suspensions were handed out, including to Anderson. But the suspension wasn’t for the bat flip, or for the pushing and shoving — it was for saying the N-word. Anderson is Black.

Everyone wanted to weigh in on the controversy that ensued, including Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale. Sale, who famously cut the sleeves off of his uniform in a rage before a start because he thought it would affect his pitching — a shining example, surely, of sportsmanship in the modern era. Sale said of Anderson: “I feel if you’re showing positive emotion for your team, that’s great. Flip your bat all you want. But I think if you’re showing the other guy up – and a pitcher can do that too – that would be unsportsmanlike.” In other words: bat flips are fine. Just don’t flip on me. It’ll hurt my feelings.

During a Dodgers/Giants game this season, a similar dynamic manifested itself when Max Muncy hit a home run off Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner, notorious for yelling at batters for admiring home runs, for getting mad at themselves when they missed a pitch, and for their existence in general, didn’t take to Muncy admiring his home run. During the post-game, when asked about his reaction, Bumgarner responded by using the Let the Kids Play campaign for his own purposes.

“They want to let everybody be themselves. Let me by myself — that’s me, you know?” Bumgarner told reporters. “I’d just as soon fight than walk or whatever. You just do your thing, I’ll do mine. Everybody is different. I can’t speak for everybody else, but that’s just how I want to play. And that’s how I’m going to.”

But the issue is that pitchers like Bumgarner are always allowed to be themselves. Batters don’t get the same leeway. Getting angry at bat flips by responding with a 95-mph fastball to the ribs is a special brand of absurdity.

MLB needs to do something about unnecessary beanballs over home run celebrations. Pitchers have a weapon in their hands when they’re on the mound. But people forget that hitters have a weapon too. Ask John Roseboro.

Teams continue to prioritize “payroll flexibility” and profit margins over fielding the best on-field product for players and fans.

Promise: This year’s free agency has gotten off to an interesting start with the Philadelphia Phillies signing pitcher Zack Wheeler to a bigger contract than the Washington Nationals’ Patrick Corbin. But it’s been a while since we could say that a team “overpaid” for a player, huh? Stop lying to yourself: You know it felt good. The Nationals just signed Stephen Strasburg to a record-breaking deal (though much of the money was deferred). And the New York Yankees could possibly reward Gerrit Cole a record contract by the time this story goes up. 

After last year’s offseason, whispers of collusion began to fly, and players began to openly voice their displeasure. But MLB executives assured the public that the market was perfectly healthy — all the result of smarter decision-making, nothing to worry about. Some see the deals being made in this offseason as proof positive of those assertions.

Broken Promise: With the current labor agreement set to expire at the end of next season, baseball fans around the country need to gear up for a work stoppage. The owners are intent on breaking the union at all costs, keeping salaries low and using the luxury tax as a defacto salary cap. Our economy continues to move toward low-paying, unstable gigs and less towards careers, and no one is going to feel sorry for athletes complaining about money when it involves millions of dollars. The owners know this and plan on taking advantage of the pro-management culture than inundated the country over the past couple of decades. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But MLB has recovered from multiple work stoppages over the years through the quality of its on-field product. Whether it was colorful teams or performance-enhancing drugs, something was always there to bring the fans back eventually. With even diehard fans complaining about the current pace and style of play, attendance on the decline, and a disproportionate number of teams electing to cut payrolls and field poor teams for strategic purposes, what’s to say those fans ever come back? Owners making money hand over fist don’t care, but Commissioner Rob Manfred should. Terms like “payroll flexibility” shouldn’t be uttered in a sport without a salary cap.

No matter how much money is being made, seeing tons of empty seats at the ballpark does not endear the sport to anyone interested in getting into it.

Speaking of which…

While MLB has made efforts to grow the game on a grassroots level, the barriers to entry and cultural issues surrounding the sport continue to worsen.

Promise: Manfred and others in the MLB front office have talked incessantly about “growing the game” and the sport of baseball in general. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and the Urban Invitational at the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy have helped a few Black baseball players make their to the major leagues and have successful careers. Recent initiatives such as the Trailblazer Series and the MLB Grit invitational for girls and young women playing baseball have also proved successful.

The World Baseball Classic displays some of the best talent that the sport has to offer. The players on the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico teams, in particular, display emotions that would get them raked over the coals in MLB, and their fans give back the same energy in response — just watch footage from the most recent WBC in Miami. It’s as though playing away from the restrictions of the mostly-White infrastructure of the sport allowed players to be themselves, and the joy of that freedom was written all over their faces. That exuberance hasn’t yet become acceptable in MLB, which doesn’t bode well for the future of this league.

Broken Promise: You can’t grow the game without planting roots. Real roots. Not through programs, but getting kids to play the sport without connecting it to a league, or a tournament of some sort of All-Star squad of draft-worthy talent. What helped “grow the game” in the 20th century wasn’t just the players or the way the game was played. It was also kids playing pickup baseball in city parks, playgrounds and sandlots across the continental United States. 

I come from the generation of Americans that was probably the last to play pick-up baseball. Bringing our bats and gloves to a playground with bases drawn in chalk was a staple of my childhood. Who does that today? Part of the popularity of football — other than it being the most TV-friendly sport, with your team showing up once a week like it’s a church service — is that people play it away from rules and regulations and for an hour or two pretend to be the players they admire. One could just look at Bobbito Garcia’s “Doin’ It In The Park” documentary to see what makes basketball thrive.

The price of entry is too expensive to play baseball in the 21st century — just ask Andrew McCutchen. And with MLB’s desire to eliminate dozens of minor league teams to make its operations more “cost-effective,” they’re just cutting off people’s access to the sport, limiting the opportunity for exposure and interest. The powers that be at MLB have a really interesting take on “growing the game.”

Keep all of these things in mind as MLB attempts to streamline and consolidate operations. From the manufacturing of the balls themselves to questionable practices in Latin America that they refuse to tackle, it’s enough to make even the biggest baseball fan consider giving up. If they don’t love the sport, why should you?

References & Resources

Let The Kids Play 2.0 (YouTube/MLB)

Rewrite The Rules (YouTube/MLB)

More Bat Flips/Bat Drops From 2019! (YouTube/MLB)

Myles Garret and Mason Rudolph: Meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro (Craig Calcaterra)

The Challenges For Rob Manfred, Now That He’s Been Extended As MLB Commissioner (Maury Brown)

Benches clear, managers brawl after bat flip retaliation during White Sox-Royals (Cassandra Negley)

Sources: Anderson’s ban is for epithet, no bat flip (Jeff Passan)

What Chris Sale and Rick Porcello had to say about the MLB bat flip controversy (Mark Dunphy)

Four HBCU teams playing in unique MLB-sponsored tournament in New Orleans (John X. Miller)


Stephon Johnson is a staff writer at the New York Amsterdam News. His work has appeared in The Classical, The Sports Fan Journal, Polygon and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated. He would like hitters to emphasize making contact again. Doubles and triples are OK. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @StephonJohnson8.
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4 years ago

Baseball owners and MLB are stuck in short-term thinking about maximizing revenue. I suspect the recent falls in attendance have not been accompanied by a similar fall in attendance revenue. Teams have “gotten smarter” about selling tickets for more dollars to fewer fans. And anyone who has gone to a ballpark knows they absolutely soak you for basic food and drink once you are there (plus for parking while you are there). This is fine, short-term, since revenue streams stay high. Long-term, fewer fans are forming a habit of attending games, plus games are more fun to attend (and watch on tv) with more fans in the stands.

Same thing applies to tv – longer games, starting later in the playoffs, with more commercial breaks makes for more revenue, but makes it less likely people will actually watch. The presence of occasional between-pitch, same-ab, commercials makes it obvious how dedicated MLB is to improving the pace of play (at this point, not at all). But again, long-term, they are failing to create a larger fan base by making the product harder to consume. Blackout rules have a similar effect.

Batters having fun/being more demonstrative is gradually taking over as the standard, with a strong red-ass contingent fighting against it. Progress is being made on that front.

Pickup baseball isn’t coming back though. Baseball simply doesn’t work well casually, with the huge space, relatively dangerous gameplay, and the need for a lot of people and equipment (everyone needs a glove). Basketball works with fewer people and less space (and by yourself, a key feature in modern living). Soccer scales pretty well to smaller groups, smaller spaces, and less equipment. Canadian staple street hockey requires more equipment, but only a couple of people, and can be played almost anywhere. Baseball, even for 10 year-olds, needs hundreds of feet of empty space. Baseball variants (wiffle ball, stick ball) haven’t really caught on.

Green Mountain Boy
4 years ago

Yeah, a bat and glove can be expensive, but relatively speaking, they’re one-time costs. A glove properly taken care of should last for one’s entire childhood and high school years. With bats being aluminum rather than wood, they should last until a kid needs and can handle a longer-heavier one. But the first bat is still good, so it stands to reason a vibrant secondary bat market should be out there, lowering the cost. Baseballs? Free. Scavenge the weeds and-or woods surrounding your local diamond. Make a deal to get used balls from the local HS or college team. When I was a kid, we used a baseball till the seams started ripping, then we’d wrap it with electrician’s tape and continue using it. Same with our wooden bats. When they cracked (the handles were thicker so they rarely shattered) we’d nail the thing into shape with a bunch of brads and then reinforce the repair by wrapping that with electrician’s tape. So please, spare me the “it’s a cost thing” argument. Listen to MLB players who grew up in the DR or PR or Venezuela or wherever. They grew up doing the same thing, and a lot of them go back and give back in the form of used equipment, making things a little easier for the next generation.

Heck, tons of kids learned to hit and throw using a sawed-off broom handle and a pink rubber Spaldeen ball. We used pee-gee balls. You want to develop hand-eye coordination? Try hitting a pee-gee ball or a Spaldeen with a sawed off broom handle.

Finally, it seems strange to me that with the astronomical money most MLB teams and players make, you only rarely hear about teams or (US) players helping grow the game at a grass roots level. Would it be that financially crippling for MLB teams to be required to tithe 5% (or even 1%) of their revenue back into the community in the form of equipment, new fields and diamonds, and grounds upkeep? It would go a long way, and they could write it off as a charitable donation. Would it be that troublesome to require all players and coaches to spend one (one!) off-day morning or afternoon at a local field chatting with or coaching a group of kids? Maybe playing a three inning pick-up game? Multiply that by 25 players and 5 coaches. Now you’ve got 30 opportunities per year for kids to be exposed to baseball.

Lip service goes nowhere and the game slowly dies from the ground up. This isn’t nuclear physics. Let’s start using our brains and fixing this before all we’re left with is soccer.

Spa City
4 years ago

A modern bat does not last more than 1 season.

I get my each of kids 2 new bats every year. An alloy bat (mainly for cold weather b/c composites can’t handle winter temperatures) and a composite bat for most of the year.

They get thousands of swings in each year. Bats can’t last much longer than a full year of travel ball.

I would never give my child a used bat. It will be “out of hits”.

Bats cost $350 to $400 each. Gloves cost $400 to $500 each.

Indoor practice facilities are expensive but necessary in places that have winter. That is several hundred dollars a year.

Tournaments are at least $500 per team per tournament. Add in hotels, dining out every weekend, and gas, and travel ball costs thousands of dollars a year per kid.

Modern youth baseball is beyond the reach of most families. If you can’t do these things, good luck getting scholarships at D-1 schools.

Green Mountain Boy
4 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

In my experience, having coached for nearly 10 years –

“Last year’s model”, brand new bats, can typically be had for under $200. I don’t know where you live, but where I live a very good glove can be had for <$100… and sometimes <$60. In either case, it's just plain stupid to spend top dollar on equipment for a kid who has ZERO chance for success at anything more advanced than a youth league. In my experience, if you've ever coached kids, at any level through high school, you can pick out the best athletes before they throw a ball or swing a bat. They are rare and identifiable by the way they move, more gracefully and with less effort. Most years I'd see only one or two kids like that throughout the entire league. One year when I was coaching my son in an 8-10 league, I picked out about a half dozen, and I told anyone who'd listen that if these kids kept playing baseball through high school, they'd be the best team the HS had in 40 years. They went beyond that. They eventually won the first HS State Championship in baseball ever. But I digress.

Most kids are sent to baseball because the parent(s) want a little peace and quiet a couple nights a week. These kids have no talent and never will play at a higher level. It makes no sense at all for a parent to spend top dollar for equipment for any of these kids. None! Sadly, most of them look like they've been taught to throw by their mothers. No, I'm not PC, just telling it like it is. A small minority wouldn't be capable of defending themselves from a batted or thrown ball if they had goalie equipment on. This is reality.

Travel ball? A joke. A scam. In my experience, a place for parents with money to gather, pat themselves on the back, and congratulate each other on what superb athletes their loins produced. In short, a totally unnecessary waste of money. There was no travel ball when I grew up (in a small city, btw). It wasn't necessary. And yes, we did win championships and contended every year.

I'll tell you what matters. Coaching matters. Good coaching. Instruction. Teaching fundamentals. Sadly, a lot of youth coaches do so simply to make sure their kid gets lots of playing time. Not mine. They had to earn it, and they're better adults now for it. For me, it never mattered whether a kid came from a rich family and had all the latest equipment, or a lower-middle class family where the kid had to borrow a glove all the time. A good coach treats them all the same. Whoever earns it, plays. Whoever makes the effort to improve, plays. And yeah, whoever wants it more and is hungrier to learn, plays – silver spoon kid or kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I consider all of these good lessons for later in life, in the real world. And to me, that's the measure of a good coach.

So call me an old fart. Down-vote me. I'm Get off my Lawn guy. Whatever. I consider all of these to be a badge of honor. I've told the truth to a Federal Judge about his kid's (lack of) abilities as an athlete. And that Federal Judge listened and helped his son improve. It was as satisfying for me to see that kid get his first hit ever after a season full of strikeouts as it was for that judge, not to mention his kid. Scenes like that are what stick with me.

Because, you see, success isn't measured by the cost of one's equipment, up-votes, or even by one's abilities or lack thereof. Success is making a difference in some (not all – impossible) kids' lives because of the summer or two you coached them. Success is having them come up to you 20 years on and telling you how much fun they had and how much they learned. Success is seeing them coaching their own kids.

And I'll end by noting that you didn't even address my point of MLB doing something to give back, which they by and large don't, which was the main point of my original argument.

Dave T
4 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

Spa City is discussing the expense and time commitment of travel ball and year-round focus on sport (such as indoor practice facilities during cold weather movies). That is a real factor in youth sports, but it’s an issue across youth sports, not just baseball.

That’s a separate issue from saying that kids aren’t playing unsupervised sandlot games of baseball and citing equipment costs as the main reason why.

To the extent that this change is a real trend – I tend to believe that it is, but Johnson doesn’t cite any surveys that quantify the change – I highly doubt that equipment costs are the main reason.

First, has there been any step change in equipment costs? Understood that high-end equipment can be really expensive. Echoing Green Mountain Boy’s points, however, a quick look at a sporting goods retailer website (Dick’s) shows baseball gloves available starting at less than $20.

I think that the biggest change has simply been that middle-class norms for scheduling and supervising children have changed greatly over time. It’s no longer common just to send groups of 5-10 children to wander off on their bikes for hours of unsupervised play. Contra Johnson’s implication, I don’t think it’s really the norm for groups of kids to meet somewhere and play a pick-up game of any sport – not just baseball. Electronics have only contributed to that trend – kids are trending toward being at home playing video games and/or communicating with their friends electronically at the expense of meeting up to do things together in person.

4 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

Why are you buying such high end products? A decent aluminum bat is less than $50, same for a decent glove (even cheaper for kids’ gloves), and they should last several years at the very least. Meanwhile, why would you bother playing in winter, anyway?!

Sure, tournaments are expensive, but you don’t need to sponsor a team yourself. Just sign your kids up for a decent league that mostly handles that kind of thing once or twice a year in the summer and then let them play for their school teams during the fall or spring. Nobody needs to be playing high level competition every weekend!

4 years ago

Really good read; thank you. It appears that the Vulture Capitalists came for baseball; as such, fandom is going away. I didn’t see mention of the contraction of all those Minor League teams, either, which seems so short-sighted. Is baseball still around in 20 years? That should be the question on the Commissioner’s mind, if he cares. The way things are going, it’s quite possible. More than likely, baseball leans into its regional roots and is no longer viable nationally. With the exodus of fans from the NFL baseball would seem poised to pick up more fans, but they seem intent to run fans away.
Lastly, the fun factor. My favorite baseball moment over the past decade was Bautista’s bat flip; my second was him and Odor getting into it. I’ve never been a fan of him specifically or his teams, but man he really brought emotion to those moments. Baseball needs more of that passion.

Marc Schneider
4 years ago
Reply to  Bigperm8645

Really? Your favorite moment was a bat flip? Not a great play or a home run or something? I didn’t have any particular problem with Bautista’s bat flip, but it certainly wasn’t the highlight of baseball. I guess it’s a generational thing. I find it’s ridiculous when a pitcher throws at someone for hitting a home run, but i also find it ridiculous for players to celebrate when they do what they are supposed to do. (This really applies more to football than to baseball.) But I don’t understand why passion doesn’t come from what happens in the game itself.

4 years ago

I’m not too sold by your first point. “let the kids play” wasn’t intended for fights or for racially charged language. Anderson didn’t do anything terrible, but I understand why MLB wouldn’t condone it.

A better assessment would be to look at how much retaliation happened in the aggregate. I don’t know the answer, but my perception is the culture of baseball is gradually loosening to allow more celebration.

4 years ago

I’m glad you were able to work in a way to blame these problems on White people. It’s amazing how Whites get blamed for just about every problem in our society today, from baseball suffering, to capitalism and it’s oppressive effects on minorities. I think the real problem is that a lot of people across all races like to buy into the narrative of oppression and victimhood.

And maybe we’d have more kids playing pick-up baseball on the inner city streets if they weren’t ravaged by violence.

4 years ago

Let the Kids Grow Up.

4 years ago

Disagree entirely on your first point. I think that MLB should adopt something like the NFL rule regarding taunting:

TAUNTING (from the NFL Rule book)
(c) The use of baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.
(d) Individual players involved in prolonged or excessive celebrations. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground. A celebration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate after a warning from an official.
(e) Two-or-more players engage in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations.
(f) Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop.
(3) Violations of (b) will be penalized if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent. These acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.

I’m pretty sure that bat flips would come under that description. That would remove the need for retaliation without encouraging pointless exhibitionism. I seriously doubt that pitchers retaliating for bat flips is turning people off from the game. Its more the rip-off ticket and concession prices, blackout rules, tanking and the like that are at the root of that problem.