The reigning World Series champion Boston Red are flying across the pond to continue their title defense against their fiercest rivals, the New York Yankees. The two-game series, in which Boston will be the home team, will be played at London Stadium and represent the first-ever Major League Baseball games to be played in Europe. While the Sox hold the title, it’s the Yankees who sit atop the American League East at 52-28, with a 9-game lead over the Red Sox, who are in third place at 44-38.
One of the reasons that baseball remains such a regional sport, even in America, is that nothing develops an emotional connection between the game and its fanbase quite like being there in person. The sun is shining, the beer is cold, faces are stuffed with hot dogs and peanuts, there’s the smell of fresh cut grass, and tens of thousands people are humming with excitement as some of the best athletes in the world ply their trade.
With that in mind, the people at MLB are endeavoring to recreate the authentic American baseball experience as best they can for those lucky enough to see this weekend’s games. There will be mascot races featuring Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII, and the Lochness Monster — the latter of whom is operating at a decided disadvantage. More than 700 ushers and volunteers have been taught the words to Take Me Out to the Ballgame so they can help lead the singalong. The Yankees’ tradition of having the grounds crew dance along to Y-M-C-A will be imported, as will the Red Sox’ tradition of playing the Neil Diamond classic Sweet Caroline.
One aspect of proper American baseball that will be in short supply is the distance to dead center field, which will be just 385 feet, well short of the MLB average of 402. It could be a homer-happy weekend in a season that is already shattering home run records. Teams this year are averaging 1.36 home runs per game, an increase of eight percent, versus 2017’s all-time mark of 1.26. Another thing in short supply will be grass. Like, there won’t be any, as the two teams will be facing off on AstroTurf for the first time in their rivalry.
While MLB is in town trying to spread the gospel of baseball, one hopes that they take some time to learn a thing or two about the way the stewards of the game of cricket go about their business.
MLB’s three oldest ballparks are Fenway (1912), Wrigley (1914) and Dodger Stadium (1962). In England they’ve got The Oval (1845), Old Trafford (1857), Lord’s (1814), and Edgbaston (1882). Having visited the Oval, it is beautiful, comfortable, easy to get to, clean and outfitted with ample concessions and toilets – you’d think the place was at most 20 years old. It would be a boon to both the sport of baseball as well as American taxpayers if MLB could break its addiction to building new stadiums; of the 30 MLB ballparks, 24 were built in the last 30 years.
Another thing the cricket gods have been willing and eager to do is help their sport evolve and change so as to meet the desires of a modern fanbase. A “proper” cricket match takes as many as five days to play, making it exceedingly difficult for any reasonable person to attend a match and come away with any sense of completion. Sure, you could maybe sneak off for a day or two, but five? So in 2003 they developed T20, or Twenty-20, cricket, a version of the sport that can be played in about three hours. Oh, and they typically start at 6:30 in the evening, meaning one can get home by 10 or 10:30 on a work night.
As recently as 1978 the average major-league baseball game took just 2:30 to play; in 2017 it was a record 3:08 and this year they’re on pace for 3:07. Cricket was originally designed to take a long time, there was simply no way around it; baseball’s issues, on the other hand, are not structural, they’re the result of a shifting culture within the sport and the business surrounding it. In 1915, the average game was played in 1:53, the quickest time on record — there’s no question the game could return to the days when a game was done in 2:30 without surrendering precious TV revenue.
Some argue that nothing needs to be done, that complaining about more baseball is ridiculous. But the problem isn’t “more baseball,” the problem is more farting around. In 1942 the average game featured 38.3 plate appearances per team and took just 2:05 to finish, while in 2019 the average game features 38.3 plate appearances per game but requires 3:07 to play.
Cricket reinvented itself to broaden its fanbase, surely baseball can get back to its roots for the health of the game. Because attendance peaked at 32,382 per game in 2008, but has yet to recover from the Great Recession and has fallen all the way down to 28,659 last season. So far this year, it’s at 27,467. This is not to blame the length of games for the fall in attendance, but long games aren’t gonna help build an aging fanbase.
The age of the average baseball fan is 55, compared to 48 for the NFL, 45 for the NHL, and 39 (39!) for the NBA. No, correlation is not causation, there are other forces at work here, but age seems to correlate to the length of game. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe.
Watch the New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox Saturday at 1:10pm ET on FOX, and again on Sunday at 10am ET on ESPN.