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How to Fix Major League Baseball

Like in public policy, the game’s stewards must see beyond the dollars and cents.

Unlike Ernest Hemingway in Paris, Major League Baseball finds itself very rich and very unhappy.

Yes, the lockout that had threatened the 2022 season is over. And the relief at a new collective bargaining agreement, and new revenue grabs like a 12-team playoff and ads on uniforms, will ease some tensions between players and management.

Yet the past two decades has seen the game—even while racking up increasing revenue year after year—lose much of both its cultural cachet and, more importantly, its soul. The game that likes to bill itself as America’s Pastime has a lesson to teach conservatives about the limits of market-driven logic—and the necessity of institutional change that is Burkean in nature.

While most of the lockout negotiations were about luxury taxes and minimum salaries, one of the numbers treated as too much of an afterthought was 4 minutes and 7 seconds, the average amount of time that went by between balls being put into play in a 2021 MLB game. A ground ball to a shifted-over shortstop playing right field…then a strike, a ball, some jersey-tugging, gum-chewing, a swing, a miss, and four minutes later, the next batted ball.

It will come as no surprise that today’s game is slower and more deliberate than the days of Joltin’ Joe or Reggie Jackson. But the languorous pace of today’s game is a relatively recent development. According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, the time between on-field action was 3:04 in 1998, and 3:18 in 2010, before breaking the four-minute mark in 2020.

Why? Pitchers throw harder (and are replaced more frequently), batters respond by swinging from the heels, and the game becomes a feast-or-famine diet of home runs and strikeouts. Long-time baseball scribe Joe Posnanski noted that since 2016 alone, strikeouts have gone up 8 percent, hits have gone down 7 percent, and the number of games in which teams used more than five pitchers increased by nearly one-third.

That is a recipe for boredom in any era, especially in the age of the iPhone. As baseball fans know too well, the average time of a nine-inning game now surpasses three hours and ten minutes. A three-hour baseball game can be a thrill ride of steals, doubles, and plays at the plate, or it can be a grinding slog of strikeouts and trips to the bullpen brought to you by DraftKings. In today’s game, it’s more often the latter.

This more “efficient” style of baseball – more pitching changes, more strikeouts, less action – is leading to a less compelling and culturally-relevant product. Healthy profits have not reflected a healthy game, as evidenced by declining attendance (2019 ticket sales were down 16 percent from their 2007 peak) and cratering ratings for the All-Star Game and World Series, both of which have fallen roughly by half since the turn of the millennium.

Meanwhile, team owners have presumed fan loyalty, and rewarded them with additional cash grabs. Their original, atrocious proposal of a 14-team playoff system was walked back to 12 teams, which still cheapens baseball’s uniquely long regular season and increases the odds of an undeserving World Series champion. Then again, with more teams adopting in-stadium gambling, perhaps increasing unpredictability is seen by team owners as a feature, not a bug.

If they took their role as stewards of an American institution seriously, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and other top executives should ask themselves, as AEI’s Yuval Levin would put it, “Given my role here, how should I act?” Instead, owners have tended to act like the equivalent of hedge fundsthat hollow out mid-size newspapers to wring out as much cash as possible.

Instead of aiming to improve the game for fans, the new era of baseball will feature gimmicks like larger bases, the designated hitter in both leagues, and a pitch clock. A steward of an institution, rather than an investor seeking the highest return, would prioritize changes that would save baseball’s soul, not milk it for all its worth.

What would this look like? Since the root of today’s stultifying pace of play tends to be overwhelming pitching prowess, limiting the number of hurlers on a roster or on a given lineup card could be a long-overdue fix. Making the ball “softer” (making it carry less far) might change hitters’ risk-reward ratio in swinging for the fences. (Those fences could be pushed out to increase the space for doubles and triples.) Restricting the use of the shift may be the best change to come out of the new CBA, though ideally it would have been coupled with dropping antiquated blackout rules and giving free tickets to anyone under 12.

The dispute between billionaires and millionaires about a game has a broader lesson for policymakers. It illustrates how “short-termism” can cause legacy institutions to eat their seed corn, and that altering an institution’s course requires changing incentives, not just rhetoric. In many ways, MLB’s labor woes parallel the debate on the right over Oren Cass’s concept of “economic piety,” and the limits of a policymaking approach that defines success only in terms that can be objectively measured. A competent commissioner, which Manfred decidedly is not, would recognize that the ideal balance between the interests of individual actors and the institution as a whole will not necessarily be struck by relying on the market alone.

Baseball’s plight also reminds those inclined to the status quo that some change is necessary for institutions to adapt to technological advances. Die-hard purists lament even the tweaks proposed above as bastardizations of the game. But they ignore how the “efficient” iteration of baseball produced in the Moneyball era is itself a watered-down version of the game that used to capture America’s heart and imagination. Nostalgia can’t create more stolen bases; rules changes can.

Baseball fans can cheer the fact that a 162-game season will be salvaged, but the on-field tweaks did little to address the key factors that leave the game’s future at risk. People will always play baseball—participation in youth leagues had just started to rebound before the pandemic—but MLB is long past being able to take its place in America’s imagination for granted.

As the Washington Post’s Barry Svrugla wrote, “there is no steward who cares deeply enough about it as a civic institution—not a business—to save it from the people who run it.” Allowing the logic of the market to dominate other concerns leads to cheapening the on-field product and mortgaging the game’s future.

Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea drew inspiration from “the Great DiMaggio.” If the mindset typified by Rob Manfred continues to dominate the game, the next generation’s grizzled mariner will encourage their grandchildren to “act like the great Mike Trout,” and the boys will reply “who?”

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.