Baseball has always gone through phases, eras, and iterations with both clear and arbitrary lines of delineation to separate them. One can point to the Dead Ball Era, the post-war Golden Age of the game, the advent of the NLCS and ALCS in the late 60’s when Major League Baseball first encountered a major competitor on the national sports landscape (the NFL), as well as the PED or steroids era that began with amphetamine usage in previous decades, but kicked into high gear following the strike year of 1994.
The current stage of baseball culture that we have entered is a bit murkier than to be pinned down with a simple phrase or slogan, though many would probably label it the Sabermetric Age. However, this time, we wish not to be branded by algorithms, equations, and an alphabet soup of acronyms denoting advanced metrics. Rather, we are in the midst of a revolution, a time when baseball is just beginning on a path toward a new frontier that will alter the landscape of the game and manner of play. Baseball is on the precipice of becoming inundated with some of the nation’s top talent, as well as becoming a haven for some of the top athletes from the ranks of youth sports. An athletic uprising is upon the sport of baseball.
Oddly enough, it is impossible to discuss this possible transformation in baseball without first discussing the variables that have precipitated the change. Chiefly, the most intriguing explanation is the recent goings on in the NFL, most notably the issue of concussions, and the advances in medical science that aid in discovering the symptoms of and diagnosing the long-term effects of head trauma.
The effects of this news are deep, and it starts at the most basic of levels: children’s level football. Many parents will balk at the prospect of putting their children in a position where not only bodily harm, but brain damage can occur. Parents will often look for safer alternatives such as soccer or baseball—though the enlightened among us know that safety is never guaranteed in any athletic endeavor—and while the talent pool for football shrinks, there is an increased likelihood that better and more rounded athletes will begin to infiltrate the sport of baseball at younger ages, growing with the sport as they mature and blossoming into pro-level prospects.
If this sounds like a pipe dream, it truly is not. Over the course of the past few years, statistics have shown that youth football participation rates have dropped by as much as 10%. If the trend continues, and the medical evidence begins to mount against the gladiatorial nature of football, one can expect to see these rates decline even further, thus eating away football’s lifeblood from the inside.
Is this going to be an overnight development? Is the NFL on its way to becoming the afterthought that boxing has become in North American sports? Hardly. The fact that Super Bowl 49 was the most watched television show in United States history magnifies and showcases the tremendous place that football holds in American society. However, it is worth noting that drops in youth participation and the gravitation of those players to other sports depletes the NFL’s chances at capturing the best athletes, as they have for the past several decades, and therefore deteriorates the game. It is not the most likely of prospects, but it is a legitimate possibility that we may be witnessing the apogee of professional football.
Another major, though less dangerous, ill that has been affecting the NFL for the past couple of seasons is the “culture,” or behavior of many of its players, some high-profile and some not. The domestic violence hot topic that was touched off by Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, as well as the cynical and face-saving PR campaign that the NFL has been promoting, are certainly a bad look for the monolithic sports association. By contrast, one does not need a marketing degree or any sense of public relations savvy to realize that MLB does a much better job of fostering a sense of maturity and responsibility in their players, thus the lack of off-field incidents in comparison with the NFL.
Are there rogue episodes of baseball players committing detestable and reprehensible acts? Of course there are, as the Ugueth Urbina affair ominously highlights. However, the major difference is the consistency, or at the very least the public perception of consistency, that NFL players often find themselves in trouble with the law or battling personal demons. Assaults, deaths, illicit drug use, brandishing firearms, DUI’s and DWI’s, and a steady stream of police reports are what differentiates the NFL offseason from the Hot Stove of transactions and free agency during the MLB offseason.
To once again touch upon the role that parents play in the athletic choices of their children, it is much more likely to witness a parent nudge their children toward a sport that features Derek Jeter, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria and Albert Pujols as their ambassadors rather than the sport that has bestowed upon us the arrogant and controversial likes of Terrell Owens, Johnny Manziel, Donte Stallworth and Chad Johnson. Is choosing those names cherry picking? Perhaps, but for every bad apple and surly baseball personality like Barry Bonds or Urbina, one can easily find three NFL characters to match.
The NFL currently finds itself with an image problem, complicated by the safety-threatening nature of the game and its results. Already, one can see these cancers gnaw away at its core. The next decade will be rocky and turbulent for the behemoth of American sports, and baseball at all levels would be wise to attempt to step in and fill the void. Baseball will not overtake the NFL and reclaim its role as the preeminent American sport rapidly, but the NFL has found itself weakened more so than at any point in a few decades. The timeframe may not be immediate, but baseball can make gradual, though colossal, strides by garnering today’s young, talented athletes—the ones who are eschewing football—and it will pay dividends in the years to come.
Rob Manfred, baseball’s newest commissioner, has made investing in youth participation and African-American involvement in the game, top priorities. If the cards are played right, baseball could see a wave of talent like never before.