I have lived in New England my entire life, and always took for granted that Red Sox Nation was as staunch a region for baseball fandom as you will find anywhere in North America. The 86 year stretch without winning the World Series gave Red Sox fans an identity, a shared suffering that was passed from one generation to the next. Another city had longer title droughts, but Chicago’s baseball misery was diluted by having two teams (the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 for the first time since 1917 but that was never talked about nearly as much as the Red Sox, let alone the Cubs who still have not won since 1908), and the fact that they ChiSox and Cubs never came as close nearly as many times as Boston did. Winning it all in 2004 was great. For me, that first World Series win will always be the highlight of my sports fandom. Nothing will ever top that American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Nothing. Boston teams can win as many championships as they want, and nothing will top 2004, especially anything the Red Sox do, and that’s a problem for baseball.
That last paragraph serves as a warning to Cubs fans and Indians fans, and Mariners fans, and Rangers fans, and Astros fans that your baseball team will never matter as much as it did before your long awaited championship, because it’s not just a Boston problem. The Red Sox have won the World Series two more times since 2004, and the Patriots have won two more Super Bowls, and the Bruins and Celtics each won championships of their own. Boston has done an absurd amount of winning this century. The Red Sox have, along with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, been one of the models for how to win in modern baseball, so when they’re not winning, instead of getting angry, fans just change the channel. If the Red Sox can’t be relevant, the Pats will be starting back up soon enough and the NBA and NHL have done a great job (the NBA more than the NHL, but still) of turning their 82 game season followed by a two month, sixteen team tournament into a 365 day cycle of relevance with their respective drafts and hot stove cycles. Football and basketball are juggernauts, with football dominating the narrative on national sports radio and TV shows most of the year, and basketball having a real chance to catch football in the United States and catch soccer internationally in the next 20 years. Hockey has a problem in that it’s a regional sport. It’s a niche sport because it matters more than most things in Canada and in certain American cities (like Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), but in those cities, there will still be interest in the Stanley Cup Final even if their team is not in it. While baseball matters in more American cities than hockey does, it’s relevance is much more localized.
If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, the playoffs do not matter in New England. I know this because I follow baseball more closely than most people in their mid-20s, and while all my friends were in on the Red Sox title run in 2013, it was really hard to get people to talk about all the compelling stories in the baseball postseason last fall, even that super fun New York Mets team, and even with one of my closest friends literally being named Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox have a likeable young team this year, with their top prospects finally living up to the hype we have been sold from the beat writers for years. The offense has been incredible, and longtime designated hitter David Ortiz has been the rare case of a player on a farewell tour, still playing like has always has. The problem is that the pitching is not good enough to keep up with their excellent hitting, and all of this offensive production could be wasted. If things go south, David Ortiz, one of the greatest playoff performers the game has ever seen, could play out the string in August and September in meaningless games, with the fanbase focusing on Patriots training camp and the potential Tom Brady vs. Jimmy G quarterback controversy. If you’re not in a fantasy baseball league (which I have not been in a few years), it is incredibly easy to lose touch with the rest of Major League Baseball. Baseball should be doing a better job of marketing itself. They have as much good, exciting talent under the age of 27 as basketball and hockey, and all three sports are doing better than football in that regard, but the excitement is localized. Red Sox fans are thrilled about Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we see more of Baltimore’s Manny Machado than fans in other divisions, but a star like Bogaerts, or Betts, or JBJ, or Machado, or Mike Trout in Anaheim, or Bryce Harper in Washington, Marcus Stroman in Toronto, or Trevor Story in Colorado, or Noah Syndergaard in New York, or Kris Bryant in Chicago, or Joc Pederson in Los Angeles, or Carlos Correa in Houston does not get the same kind of national buzz (with the possible exceptions of Harper in Trout) as Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, or Russell Westbrook, or Connor McDavid. The pieces are there to generate interest beyond one’s local baseball club. They just haven’t figured it out.
Baseball, in a lot of ways, is trapped in centuries past. It’s a game without time limits, for the most part, that adopted instant replay long after the other three sports, that feels content to cater to older fans rather than actively cultivate new ones. Some of that is a good thing. The idea of following the same team that my grandparents followed as children is kinda cool. My grandfather died in 2000 and never got to see the Red Sox win the World Series, but I got to see them win it twice while I was in high school. Red Sox baseball is a tradition older than any of the other Boston teams, having played their first season in 1901. The Bruins played their first season in 1924 (making them the oldest current American NHL team), the Celtics played their first season in 1946, and the Patriots have been around since 1960. History can only get you so far in modern sports, though. It was the Patriots, not the Red Sox, that first turned Boston’s championship fortunes around in 2002, and it was the Cavaliers, not the Browns or Indians that broke through first for Cleveland, a team that was rarely if ever relevant without LeBron James on their roster. Kids today do not care about Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax. Why should they? Baseball’s history will always be there, but baseball’s present should be what we’re celebrating.
Baseball needs to lighten up a bit. Cool things happen in any baseball game, but there are unwritten rules that prevent players to act like they’re having fun compared to the other sports. Jose Bautista flips a bat after a dynamite home run in the playoffs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and old school baseball people lose their minds over it. What could be celebrated as a trending .gif the way fans would celebrate a Rob Gronkowski end zone celebration or a menacing Dirk Nowitzki fist pump or a Jaromir Jagr goal salute is condemned as being bad for the game in baseball. A guy like Bryce Harper plays with the kind of swagger people are used to seeing on a basketball court and people call for him to get off their lawn, so to speak.
I want baseball to do well. I want it to stand the test of time, and I want it to still matter in 40 years. For that to happen, baseball is going to need to adapt to the 21st century. Things could be more fun than they are. The powers that be just need to let it happen.