Rougned Odor, Gerrit Cole, and the Impact of Rivalries on Baseball’s Popularity

There’s a funny scent wafting from the baseball world after the events of the past weekend. It’s, dare I say, a Rougned Odor.

After taking umbrage with a hard slide from Toronto’s Jose Bautista, already branded as somewhat of a slide-rule scofflaw, the Rangers second baseman shoved and then clocked the bat-flipping Blue Jay. The right cross sent sunglasses and tweets flying and instantly made Arlington the center of the baseball world. Dana White couldn’t have promoted it any better if he had scripted it himself.

But does MLB really want its product tied to the greater public consciousness via a punch? You know what P.T. Barnum said, “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they smell my fame right.” I think the moral of the story is that even bad publicity is good for business, particularly when it involves new rivalries and the potential for fireworks.

Take the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, a matchup that might have highlighted Monday’s headlines were it not for the donnybrook in Dallas. While the results have been lopsided heretofore, Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole got everyone’s dander up when he dissed the Cubs’ cred.

“It’s just an opportunity an opportunity to salvage the series,” the Pirate pitcher said. “I don’t really think they’re the best team in baseball.”

Those words might have been little more than typical jock bravado were it not for the recent history between the two teams and the growing intensity of the Pirates’ little-brother complex. Fans were calling for beanball retaliation as a means by which to regain some of the rep their team has lost at the hands of the Cubs, who were 5-0 with a +26 run differential against the Pirates heading into Sunday’s game.

It’s a long season, though, and the two teams will square off 13 more times before we reach October. That’s 13 more opportunities to play Cole’s soundbite or highlights of Chris Coghlan breaking Jung Ho Kang’s leg as he tried to break up a double play or Kyle Schwarber hitting a ball into the Allegheny River or Sean Rodriguez going Rougned Odor on a Gatorade jug.

The Rangers and Jays won’t play again this season unless it’s in October, which…wow, we can only hope to see that again. Still, Odor made himself a household name by cold-cocking a superstar, not unlike Holly Holm beating the hell out of Ronda Rousey and finding her name on the lips of thousands who’d never heard of her even the day before.

Rob Manfred isn’t about to espouse or embrace violence of any kind in his game, nor am I advocating such. But what can’t be denied is that beef, for lack of a better word, is good. Beef is right, beef works. Beef clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the competitive spirit. Beef, in all of its forms; beef over life, over money, over love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. Isn’t that right, Gordon Gecko?

Sports are television’s greatest reality show, and the best way to drive ratings is by promoting characters and storylines that people will tune in to watch. It’s the same compulsion that drives viewers to NASCAR to see the big wrecks, or that drives frenetic hooligans to crowd the sidelines at a soccer match to yell, “Blood makes the grass grow, kill, kill kill!”

And that’s just D-III footy.

So while I can’t, in good conscience, promote the actions or rationale that drove Odor’s clout or Cole’s quote, I can see how both will have a positive impact on baseball’s broader appeal. We can have a separate discourse on the legitimacy or desirability of those new eyeballs, but the ratings care not why you’re tuning in, just that you are.

It’s impossible to miss the stars in MLB’s night sky, guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw. No stranger to controversy himself, Harper is leading the charge as part of a brash youth movement that’s embracing the flipping of bats and pimping of home runs. Make baseball fun again, they say.

I have no doubt many of you have different definitions of what constitutes “fun,” though it’s hard for anyone to argue that a sense of not knowing what’s going to happen during the course of the next game or inning or pitch is exciting. That sense of barely tethered sanity, riding the line between cordial and combative, has a visceral pull that can’t be denied.

The babyfaces will always get the endorsements and the adoration, but nothing drives an emotional response like a good heel turn. WWE it’s not, but Major League Baseball is going to reap the benefits of having a few more rivalries and another villain or two.

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