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Baseball Is A Buffet

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 21: The Green Monster is painted ahead of 2023 MLB Opening Day on March 21, 2023 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The New York Times broke out a lengthy story in today's editions on the popularity of Yankees caps in Brazil, the perfect kind of old-school story to which the Times occasionally still excels. It had a New York hook, an American-culture-triumphant-overseas undercurrent, and it had sports for people who weren't interested in Brazil or culture. It even had a shot at the Red Sox. That's knowing your audience.

It had photos of women in bathing suits and Yankees hats walking along a beach, a salute to both old-fashioned pandering and the knowledge that nobody's clicking on new photos of Jair Bolsonaro in a hospital bed.

But it also had, tucked away in the 18th of 33 paragraphs, this little beauty that explains baseball's ongoing crisis of confidence as it embarks upon its 155th season.

“We can’t even understand how a sport like this is so successful,” said João Ricardo Santos, an art director in Rio, who was shopping for a baseball cap downtown. In the United States, baseball “fills the stadiums and soccer doesn’t,” he said. “Like, in our head, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Why, he could be Rob Manfred.

Yet, armed with new rules that have been the game's principal selling point this offseason, baseball's choice to market its ongoing struggle with the concept of monetizable relevance is an odd one. It has been shown that its most interesting avenues for growth have been as an international game, but the most prevalent commercials it has offered are cleverly stupefying ones like Mets manager Buck Showalter trying to convince mobile refrigerator Daniel Vogelbach not to steal a base. The concept is clear—the brightest and most experienced minds in the game have to get out of the way for a beefy guy wanting to dazzle the audience with speed he doesn't seem to have. Like Yankees hats in Brazil, it is the triumph of incongruity as a selling point in a changing world.

Over the years, baseball as a concept has often been at odds with baseball as a real thing. It works as business at a time when its audience seems to be shrinking, even though as the World Baseball Classic hinted, the audience might just be in places that we haven't bothered to count. It has sold chemistry as the future, it has sold math as the future, it has even sold its fashion as the future. It is now being asked to consider the notion that maybe the next marketing choice is to make it look less like it is than ever before—Shohei Ohtani as the face, arm and bat of the game. Indeed, of all the sports, it has changed more radically and often while pretending to be more resistant to change than all the others.

I mean, you know what the NFL is selling this week? The potential ouster of a viscerally offensive billionaire and the legalization of the number zero. Those are decisions you make when you are sure you can no longer fail as a business no matter what you do.

Yet, there are still 2,430 games to give everyone all the inventory they can eat. The simple joys are still there to bask in because the tent is big enough to take in scorekeeping nerds, fantasy league nerds, and gambling nerds. And that's just our staff meetings. What wrecks baseball, if it can be wrecked, is the notion that anything that can't be monetized or homogenized is inefficient and therefore bad.

Baseball, as comprehensively fucked as it often acts like it is, is about celebrating the agony of choice. Sticking around for extra-inning games is a choice, and so is leaving in the sixth to beat traffic. Pitchers duels are an option, and so are 13-11 games that exhaust bullpens by the fifth inning. Wanting replay to govern all in-game decisions is a choice, and so is managers running onto the field to scream at overly officious umpires who have been armed with law but not nuance. Those 2,430 games aren't a requirement, either. You can watch as many or as few as you want. Unlike the NFL, which is the triumph of heroin-infused rigidity, baseball is about whatever you want it to be. It is in that way maddeningly and gloriously inefficient, with unwatched games and underappreciated players and moments strewn like paper in an office supply store holdup, and the only people who fail to grasp the joy in that waste through whim are people who need the certitude of the one-size-fits-all world.

The value of the World Baseball Classic is that it gave the sport a new avenue for engagement by remembering that other countries play it, too, and in fact provide a large and increasing percentage of its workforce. The value of the new rules is that they might turn out to be an absolute disaster for the game, and they can and should be abandoned if their real aim, a more vibrant game with greater and more frequent displays of athleticism, doesn't match the achieved result. An actionless game that lasts 2:49 is no better than an actionless game that lasts 3:11 because the problem has never been the 3:11. It's the action.

Baseball is about change, and choice, and profligate waste. More games will always be better than fewer games because every game does not need to be an event, but as many games as possible should be eventful for the curious consumer.

Ultimately, the thing that strangles baseball is the need for every team to look the same, act the same, and play the same. Lime green Yankees hats with a yellow NY in Sao Paolo make more sense when considered in that context, and even if the one woman on Ipanema Beach wearing a hat with a heater dangling from her lips seems incongruous, she too is where baseball needs to be, even if she will never know or comprehend the true joy of Tampa’s 158 different starting lineups. The Rays shouldn't be the future of all baseball, because their greatness is in their iconoclasm.

So as the 15 games break tomorrow, keep all this in mind. You are not responsible for all 15, just the ones you want, or even just the moments you want. Baseball is a well-stocked store, but that doesn't mean you have to buy from every aisle. But you may want to keep an eye on those Vogelbach at-bats, just to see if he gets that glint in his eye.

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