Major League Baseball has fundamentally changed the game to appeal to an addle-brained generation that gets its info in less than 60 seconds, in 280 characters, or through a filtered picture of an illusory life. It has not and will not work. Like the guy who changes himself to get the girl, all that he has done is lose her respect and ultimately lose respect in himself. The guy who looks within himself, finds, and amplifies the things that make him unique, is the guy who truly gets the girl — a lesson MLB refuses to learn.
To learn this lesson would mean that MLB needs to look within itself and find the things that make it uniquely special, things that no other sport can provide, and then amplify them to the audience it so desperately wants. MLB has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing the uniqueness of the game, things such as:
- Home runs
- Fan interaction
- The uniforms
- The field
- The structure of the game
- The stadiums
- The statistics
And none of it has worked.
Do not get me wrong, these are all wonderful things and MLB has used these qualities to market the game to varying levels of success, but here we are in 2023, and the well has apparently run dry. Now, MLB believes that tinkering with the game will draw in more fans.
Back in February, Commissioner Rob Manfred was quoted as saying, “Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans. ‘What do our fans want to see on the field?’.” This quote could not highlight how off the mark MLB is when it comes to drawing in new audiences.
The question MLB should be asking themselves is, “What kind of presentation can we make off the field to draw more fans to the game of baseball?” The 2022 World Series drew an average viewership of 11.78 million people, which is about half the population of Arizona, and the second-lowest draw in World Series history, and MLB believes that the reason for this number is because fans have some sort of problem with the game?
No Rob Manfred, and MLB, the problem is how you market the game.
Did anyone catch those new commercials MLB rolled out to promote the game before the 2023 season? Here is who MLB decided to use to help them do that:
- Blake Snell
- Tim Anderson
- Daniel Vogelbach
- Buck Showalter
- Joey Votto
- Nestor Cortez
- Jose Trevino
- Bryan Cranston
Let that list sink in.
A little longer.
MLB has a problem. American football and basketball have overtaken baseball as the most popular sports in America. Baseball routinely does better than soccer and ice hockey, but cannot compete with the emotion that these sports provide. It is not a lack of emotion that puts these sports below baseball, but the fundamental stubbornness of American audiences to embrace them. MLB does not have that problem. Americans have their big three (which baseball is a part of) and that is that. That said, MLB can imitate these sports if they want to compete with the NFL and the NBA ever again and that is by embracing the emotion.
This brings us to Ronald Acuña Jr. He is the one player who can truly save the game of baseball in America, if only MLB would get out of their own way and just market the guy, and all the things that make him the best player in the game.
You can look at his stats, and they legitimately set him apart from every player in the game, (sans Shohei Ohtani, who provides an otherworldly distinctness that is all his own) but again, MLB has used stats as a marketing tool, and it does not work anymore. As remarkable as baseball statistics are, they are above-the-shoulders mustard gas, they are confusing, intimidating, and annoying to any new person MLB is looking to bring into the game. Do not get me wrong, statistics are great. They are great to look at and study over. No other sport is quite like baseball in that regard. For the sake of baseball’s future, it is important to state what is obvious, which is that MLB would need to use more than just Acuña’s statistics to market the game. MLB needs to do what they seem too afraid to do; market the emotion the players provide. More importantly: market Acuña’s emotion.
The game of baseball naturally brings out the emotions of the players who play the game, but none more so than Acuña, and MLB would be wise to highlight that emotion. Yet, somehow, it feels as if MLB is actively trying to limit that emotion, or at least allow teams and players to do so through the game’s antiquated “unwritten rules.” MLB is like the proverbial one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.
Allow me for a moment to make the case as to why MLB needs to market the emotion of the game, and more immediately, Ronald Acuña Jr.
Acuña has started the 2023 season off in unprecedented territory. As of this writing, he sits first in Runs, first n Total Bases, second in Outfield Assists for Right Fielders, second in Stolen Bases, second in OPS, second in Batting Average, third in On Base Percentage, fourth in slugging percentage, has accrued 3.1 WAR in 44 games, hit 11 home runs, and has 27 RBI. Those ranks are not National League ranks, but reflect his position in all of MLB.
These stats matter to the everyday fan, and will, eventually, to the new fans Acuña brings to the game. But, if we are being honest, these new fans are not going to watch the game based just on those numbers. This rich history of baseball statistics is only appreciated by those who follow the game.
MLB needs to get these new fans to watch first and that does not start in the head, it starts in the heart, which is something Acuña is full of. Beyond that, Acuña is, as the younger generation says, “Bussin’”. To borrow another phrase, Acuña has “Drip.” He changes his hair style on a seasonal basis, he has his chains flowing, his tattoos prominent, his Venezuelan flag-colored red and yellow gloves, guards, and shoes are considered “Gucci.” The man is pure “Rizz.” If MLB were to put him front and center, people would notice.
What those people would see is what sets him apart from every other major leaguer. Acuña is the complete package. He is a six-tool player. He has everything a player needs to be considered a five-tool player, but he also has the intangible sixth tool that MLB needs to market to grow the game; the emotion.
As the most well-known salesman of all time, Zig Ziglar, once said, “Selling is essentially a transfer of feeling.” If MLB wants to sell itself to a new generation, and in turn gain more viewers, they need to promote that sixth tool.
Acuña did not come about by accident. Acuña’s excitement, and passion for the game of baseball is a byproduct of the rich history of baseball in Venezuelan culture. Baseball came to Venezuela in the early 20th century, thanks to the discovery of oil in the country. Rights were sold to American oil companies, and with those rights came many American oil workers, taking the game of baseball with them.
In 1941, baseball in Venezuela took off, in large part due to the accomplishments of the team famously known as the “Heroes of ‘41”. That year, the Venezuelan national team beat the host country, and heavily-favorited, Cuban National Team, to take home the Amateur World Series Championship. Five years after their victory, the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional (LVBP) was established. These two events that ignited a love for baseball in Venezuela that continues to this day.
Americans felt that way about baseball once. American fans used to crowd around dilapidated stadiums and sit on rickety benches to watch the greats duke it out. Then cable television came along, 100 channels to choose from, the internet was invented, and baseball lost its way. Go to Venezuela and you will find cable television, 100 channels to choose from, and the internet, but still Venezuelans are passionate about their baseball. This passion lives inside Acuña, like it does for Venezuelans.
To watch Acuña play for the Atlanta Braves, to play in the major leagues, is American audiences getting a taste of LVBP baseball, a taste of what Venezuelan baseball fans have been passionate about for generations. If the LVBP can create a game that has led Venezuelans to love the game as much as they do and as they still do to this day, despite the plethora of distractions at their fingertips, it stands to reason MLB could do the same by promoting Acuña.
The Passionate Fanbase
It is important to discuss what makes Venezuelan fans so passionate about baseball. The LVBP did not have to institute pitch clocks, enlarge bases, or ban shifts to keep people watching. Players all over the world flock to the Venezuelan Winter League just to get a brief taste of the baseball life in Venezuela. Raucous crowds are found at even the most mundane games, cheering for their team as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. The excitement of the crowd consistently spills over out on the field, where players display their emotions as blaringly as another jersey logo. This passion bleeds itself into their game. It is the way baseball is supposed to be played.
What fuels this passion? After all, baseball is just a game. Young Venezuelan boys and girls have woken up for generations, grabbed their bat and glove and went out onto the field. Some grabbed what they could, like a stick and a bottle cap, and hit the streets. Adults would take what money they had and go to the games, cheering on their favorite players and teams. Why would an entire country rally behind the game of baseball the way Venezuelans have? It starts and ends with family. Spend time with many large families and you will find laughter and joy; this is especially true in some Venezuelan families. This cultural idea of family extends onto the baseball field. Ask a Venezuelan and they mght tell you that baseball is family, and the Acuña family has been no different.
Baseball, in the Acuña family, did not begin with Ronald Acuña Jr. The game of baseball was a part of Acuña’s family long before he came into this world. Acuña’s grandfather, Romualdo Acuña, and father, Ronald Acuña, both spent time in MLB’s minor league baseball system. Acuña’s uncle, Jose Escobar, played for Cleveland in 1991, and several of Acuña’s cousins have also played in the MLB: Vicente Campos, Alcides Escobar, Edwin Escobar, and Kelvim Escobar. To say that baseball in the Acuña family runs deep would be understating how important it is to them. It’s not just the Acuña family, though; baseball runs deep across all of Venezuela. The breadth of this depth lives inside of Acuña.
The Embodiment of Venezuelan Baseball
If you could wrap this idea of family, and the spirit, the love, the passion, the emotion that Venezuelans have for baseball into a single person it would be Acuña. In 2023, he is Venezuelan baseball. Watch any game and his emotion is clearly displayed on his jersey; right next to the team logo. A big hit, a routine fly ball, rounding third, Acuña has an aura around him that could not be taught; it was molded.
How is it that baseball in Venezuela can be as big as life? A country full of die-hard baseball fans and yet here in America, where baseball grew, the authorities seem to believe that the game needs to change? Are the suits really that stuffy over here? MLB has denied marketing the one quality that can truly grow their game to heights they have not seen in generations, and that is taking what Venezuelans see in the game of baseball and broadcasting it out to the American audience. Start with Acuña and share the story on why he is the way that he is.
It comes as no surprise that an increased number of players, from all over the world, have taken notice of the emotion Acuña and other Hispanic players have brought to the game, something American baseball has never quite understood, but can take a cue from if MLB genuinely wants to grow the game. If MLB were serious about this, they could start by destroying the one thing that has held back the game of baseball, and Acuña: the “unwritten rules.”
The Unwritten Rules
August 15, 2018.
Acuña’s rookie season was going as well as many had hoped, and he had recently been on a tear. He had scorched the Marlins with three lead-off home runs in three games, including a second home run in the third game. Naturally, the passionate Acuña displayed his excitement for the world to see and this was just too much for the decision-makers on the Marlins. The next day there were questions as to what Marlins starting pitcher, Jose Urena, would do. He did not waste any time letting the crowd of 19,000+ know by drilling Acuña on the first pitch. Benches cleared and Urena was tossed, but it highlighted an archaic no-no in baseball that is famously considered one of baseball’s “unwritten rules.”
“Don’t show up your opponent.”
This one “unwritten” rule has led to countless injuries, countless suspensions, and countless misunderstandings. MLB has allowed emotion to be perverted into something worth hurting a player over by slinging a 100 mph projectile at them. If you go back and watch any of the greatest games in history, whether it be the close score or the high stakes, the one thing that sets them apart from all others is emotion. Everyone there cared about the result of that game. There was tension, there was joy, there was excitement and celebration. Acuña brings that to every game, whether it is Opening Day or Game 7 of the World Series. Yet, he must worry that if the opposing team were to misconstrue his emotion as somehow “showing up your opponent,” he is going to get hurt.
Acuña has been hit 40 times in his six-year career and if you type in “Acuña hit on purpose” into Google you will see countless examples of teams “allegedly” retaliating against him for merely showing the passion that was bred into him. All Acuña has ever done is show the love and excitement from doing something great, no different than the millions of people out there who do something great and are happy about it. Does he stare down the opposing pitcher? Does he talk trash to the opposing team? Is he brash in clubhouse interviews? No, Acuña has always been humble and thankful that he is allowed to play the game he has always loved. Yet there is a contingent of baseball players, managers, and, based on the lack of action taken by MLB itself, staff at the league office that seem to believe the emotion displayed in baseball should only be a certain way, a way that argues players should only show an approved amount of emotion. This type of thinking simply needs to die.
People crave authenticity. It is the one thing that resonates amongst all other traits. MLB is telling Acuña, players, managers, and fans, that MLB is inauthentic by allowing unchecked retaliation against players like Acuña to continue. Instead, they should be doing the opposite and promoting the authenticity of emotion that Acuña and many others bring to the game.
MLB is standing on a hill, clinging to oppressive traditions that are killing the game, while players like Acuña are trying to break free. MLB’s continued allowance of baseball’s “unwritten rules” needs to stop if baseball is to grow.
Make Madison Bumgarner the “last cowboy” of the old era. Do away with any “unwritten rules” that beat down the emotion baseball so desperately needs. Let it be known on high to managers and players that retaliation for simple expressions of emotion is forbidden and punishments will be harsh and severe. As a compromise, any player that stares down a pitcher or the opposing team, or displays an emotion, or acts in a way that is to the detriment of the game, i.e., trash-talking, will also be dealt with in an equally-harsh manner. There is a fine line between “being emotional” and “being a jerk,” but MLB can live on that line. It is certainly better than being on the fine line of relevancy and insignificance.
In a perfect world, MLB sees the light and jettisons the old-fashioned “unwritten rules” into the sun. What should happen next? Making the emotion Acuña displays the centerpiece of a brand-new marketing campaign. Highlight his big swings, his leaping catches, his stolen bases, but focus more on the emotion he brings. Run campaigns with other players who play the game with the same emotion Acuña does, but center the spotlight on him. MLB could bring in some young stars in other industries: music, movies, art, and, yes, even social media and make them a part of the campaigns. With Acuña set free, there is no limit to what MLB could get out of him from a marketing perspective.
Acuña is the star MLB so desperately needs to market. He is the future in a league that clings to the past. MLB would be wise not to dread it or run from it, but rather embrace it. It is time for MLB to let the old ways die and start a new era. MLB: if you genuinely want to grow the game, stop tinkering with it and start promoting Ronald Acuña Jr.