One way of discussing MLB’s 21st-century aesthetic evolution goes like this: Say a baseball-loving Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in the 1990s emerged from their slumber and started watching games again. How long would it take them to identify what’s changed? What would they spot first?
Would it be the strikeouts? The homers? The lack of stolen bases and complete games? Would they instantly lament the waning number of balls in play? Or would they exult in the superior athleticism and the triple-digit velocity? Invariably, this scenario is invoked to stoke the “Baseball is Dying” panic — a compelling but misguided buzz that hovers over this sport like that rain cloud hovers over poor Charlie Brown.
For the first time in a long time, the baseball world’s tiresome self-consciousness got flipped on its head Thursday.
After months in the wilderness of labor strife and a week in a necessary post-lockout delay, opening day finally arrived. There were only seven games played on the first day of a new year that feels newer than any in the sport’s recent history, but MLB barreled ahead into noticeably novel territory on several fronts.
Within the first few hours of action, it made Rip Van Winkles of us all. This baseball was not the baseball we saw in 2021.
There are new rules, a new playoff format, new broadcasts, new stars, new ways of paying the new stars and an overarching, notably different proclivity toward trying something, anything, new.
A fan who plunged back into MLB with the season-opening matchup between the National League’s Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs saw a designated hitter lead off the bottom of the first. Much to the chagrin of some traditionalists, the universal DH is here — the canary in the coal mine that, for all our sakes, will hopefully be the most tortured rules debate in the sport’s history.
Something else was different about that same at-bat, though. Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez wasn’t flashing fingers to communicate with reigning NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. The signs so infamously stolen by the Houston Astros in 2017 had vanished. Instead, Narvaez was using a device on his wrist — like a remote control crossed with a quarterback’s cheat sheet — to send the call to a tiny transmitter in Burnes’ hat. One button for the type of pitch, one button for the location.
The technology, known as PitchCom, came together remarkably quickly. MLB started publicly discussing the idea of wearable devices to avert sign stealing two offseasons ago. It started testing devices last spring. Then, this spring’s more widespread testing went so well the league announced it would be available for use in regular season games, and several teams took the option to deploy it on opening day.
A couple hours later, the Kansas City Royals slotted superb prospect Bobby Witt Jr., making his major-league debut, into their lineup in the No. 2 hole. Still seeking his first hit, he found himself at the plate with the go-ahead run on base in the eighth inning. He roped a double down the left-field line as the Kauffman Stadium crowd chanted “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.”
In what wound up being the only nationally televised game of the day, Cincinnati Reds first baseman and newly minted TikTok star Joey Votto donned a microphone during the game against the Atlanta Braves. Votto proceeded to ask Ozzie Albies, during a stay on first base, whether Votto should get a diamond tooth.
Some tricky problems do have solutions within reach, if we allow ourselves to chase them. Star players can reveal their personalities for themselves, if equipped with microphones on major networks. The hitter who can win you the game is right there, you just have to bring him to the majors. The signs that have been stolen can be beamed to the pitcher’s hat without a chance for the opposition to intercept them.
So much of MLB’s recent history is wrapped up in friction — between the owners and the players they have squeezed financially; between the twisted, sweaty palms of fans fretting that the game is straying off course in this way or that.
On opening day of MLB’s Season of New, it was unbelievably refreshing to sit back and just absorb how baseball was different.
The new collective bargaining agreement MLB and the union struck to end the lockout was present in a lot of ways on Thursday. In addition to the DH and the expanded postseason hopes, new stipulations and incentives around young talents may have contributed to more prospects like Witt making opening day rosters and beginning their careers with the pomp and circumstance they deserve. (Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez and Detroit Tigers slugger Spencer Torkelson will join that club Friday.)
More generally, the CBA threw open the door for PitchCom-esque solutions (or at least ideas) to be rolled out on the field with far shorter periods of unofficial public comment. If commissioner Rob Manfred and the team owners can work with players even a little bit more gracefully than in recent years, the interplay of ideas and feedback could produce significant, positive developments for the league’s on-field integrity and entertainment value.
With former Red Sox and Cubs GM Theo Epstein installed as a sort of czar overseeing a sweeping gameplay recalibration, MLB could install automated strike zones, limitations on the defensive shift, a pitch clock and many, many other changes in coming seasons.
You need not be gung-ho about all of those pursuits — I’m not, personally — to appreciate forthright experimentation and decisiveness. If we’re going to worry about a tweak to the sport, let’s draw it up and see what it looks like, within reason. No one realistically worried that tossing Madison Bumgarner’s very occasionally useful bat on the scrap heap of history would be the straw that broke a fragile camel’s back. The same held true for the silly automatic runner in extra innings. And it will hold true for eliminating catchers’ neon-painted nails, putting games on streaming services and selling advertising on uniforms.
Will every experiment prove a positive? Almost certainly not! But if opening day drove home anything, it’s that being the Rip Van Winkle who gets to experience the rush of rediscovering our favorite sport sure beats the paralysis of worrying about what we’ll see.