Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Baseball is back, but whether or not it's better than ever might depend on who you ask. That's because this spring, MLB introduced a batch of new rules that's changing how the game is played. While some traditionalists and even some players have criticized the new rules, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says the changes are integral to the modern game.
Rob Manfred: 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?
Melissa: How have these rules played out in the past few weeks? What do they say about the future of baseball? Joining me now is Dave Zirin, Sports Editor at The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect. Dave, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Dave Zirin: It's great to be here, Melissa, love the show. Love the work you do. Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa: All right. It is apparently baseball season. I know this because we just had opening night in the minor league team in my town, but in Major League Baseball, there's some major changes happening, right?
Dave: Absolutely. There are changes to make major league baseball appealing to people other than grandparents and their grandchildren, which is far too often the dominant population at major league baseball games. They want to make the game quicker, and they want to make the game what they think is more fitting for a TikTok social media generation. Now, all sports are trying to do this.
The great existential fear in every single sports league is that this generation that comprises your kids, Melissa, and my kids, just have too many entertainment options to care about traditional sports. They're thinking of ways to attract that younger audience and Major League Baseball has taken the most radical steps, frankly, because it has the most work to do to capture that audience.
The biggest change, there are several, is the use of something that is being known as the pitch clock. The clock is basically 15 seconds where the base is empty, 20 seconds with the runner on base, the pitcher has to start his delivery and throw the ball. No more long waits, no more head games, just if you get the ball, you better gear up and pitch it or there's going to be an automatic ball. As for the batters, they can't be stepping in and out of the batter's box every five seconds to, shall we say, adjust themselves. It has created a game that is I think, radically different but it's also radically a return to the past at the same time.
It's radically different because baseball has always prided itself on being the game without a timer. That was on purpose from its very beginning in the 19th Century because they wanted it to be a sport for people who lived in cities to remind them of what it was like to live in the countryside. It was a pastoral sport meant to evoke memories of life before what they thought then was the insanity of urban life, my goodness if they could have only fast-forwarded 100 years another conversation, although things weren't so great then either to put it mildly.
Melissa: You got to be careful about nostalgia, even when it comes to baseball.
Dave: Yes, oh my god, maybe even especially when it comes to baseball because a league that fought tooth and nail to keep Black players out of the league until Jackie Robinson in 1947, now likes to bathe itself in his memory as some iconic force in the movement for Black freedom. Yes, we have to be very careful. That being said, a game last year, for example, would average roughly three and a half hours.
A game when my father was growing up, for example, going to see the Brooklyn Dodgers was like a two, two and a half hour game, so the game has gotten an hour longer. Why is that? More pitching changes, more delays and more commercials. The game has become artificially longer over the last 70 years. This could be seen as a correction to making baseball the sport it was when it did capture the hearts and minds of a generation of people in that post-war period of the United States.
Melissa: In all of this, whether we're thinking back and trying to get a little more clear-eyed about our nostalgia, or even this point about the length of the game, it all begins with this point you made that it is about entertainment of some kind. If I'm in a game, it's because I'm rooting for something and that making that shorter doesn't necessarily seem like it would be appealing.
Dave: I mean, to put it mildly, Melissa, the debates raging about the pitch clock, I mean, are the things where you just hope there aren't any sharp weapons in the immediate vicinity. There are huge differences about this. You have these warring impulses of what we want the game to be, I want it to be shorter, like in my dad's day, streamlined. My son, I mean, this is interesting, since he's supposed to be that TikTok generation wants the longer waits, wants to relax, wants to get under his blanket on a night game night in April and watch the game from the stands. It's all about really what one's pleasure is, with regards to what one gets out of the sport.
Baseball is something, I think because it is so generational in that regard, something that's seen as something that's handed down, and something that's very associated with family that people feel very protective of what it was. I guess I'm just in a position of feeling protective, first of all of my time. Second of all, because I know the game is only longer because of things that are somewhat artificial like commercialism, or like the hyper computerization of managing right now, which says that all pitchers should only pitch this number of innings because my spreadsheet says so, and much less of a kind of feel for the game mentality.
Melissa: I wonder also if there is something about baseball games, or excuse me, baseball teams, but are people still as attached to their baseball teams as they once were?
Dave: Well, yes, but it's different, even from the time when I was growing up, because baseball is still a very lucrative sport. It's still a very popular sport, but unlike, say, in the '80s and '90s, it's become a hyper-regional sport. People will be obsessed with their local team, but might not know who a star is across the country or in the Midwest if you live on the East Coast like I do. A lot of that is because the games are funneled through local cable networks now as opposed to network television. For purposes, I think both from a marketing perspective, but also a purpose of just how these local cable companies have become so intrinsic to the financial stability of the game. A lot does flow from that.
Melissa: We're going to pause for a moment. When we come back, we're looking at the new minor league union. It's The Takeaway. [silence] It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, I'm talking with Dave Zirin, Sports Editor at The Nation magazine, about rule changes in Major League Baseball. Off the field, leagues made some changes to its labor practices ahead of the season, after striking a deal with minor league players for Collective Bargaining Agreement, and Dave says this new union is bigger than baseball.
Dave: Amazing, historic, fascinating. I've written articles about it. The place where I work, The Nation magazine did a cover story about it, just to give you an idea of the buzz this cause not just in sports circles, but in labor circles as well to see the minor league players organize something that people thought would never occur. You see that basketball and football effectively, not entirely, but overwhelmingly use our system of higher learning, our university system as their minor leagues. You take it to baseball, they've always had a minor league system. They've always been a sport that has drawn more from people without college education, although that has dipped and waned in recent years as well.
These minor league players have existed in a place of hyper-exploitation for decades. When I say hyper-exploitation, forget about a minimum wage, forget about labor protections, forget about constitutional protections. They have this antitrust carve out where players were making $7,000 to $9,000 a year living with families in small towns, particularly you know that a huge percentage of minor league players are from the Dominican Republic, and to a lesser extent Venezuela. They're living in dorms or living in homes with people who don't speak their language.
That dynamic have always put minor league players from a labor perspective at a great disadvantage, but a lot changed over the last couple of years. First of all, incredible inspiration from Starbucks workers, Amazon workers, low-wage workers, and this generation who started to organize and try to get the Major League Baseball Players Association to come in and organize the players and part of their campaign, and this is the most genius part, is they started doing things that sound a lot like the Fyre Festival.
F-Y-R-E, if people remember that debacle where they were putting online pictures of their meals, which looked inedible and their living conditions, which looked horrific, especially in a sport that we associate with million-dollar ballplayers. I think it really says something that the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a gentleman by the name of Rob Manfred, who is no friend of labor, did not fight this.
Melissa: Now that Minor League Baseball is organized in this way, what are some of the basic stipulations?
Dave: Oh, there's stipulations in terms of housing, in terms of pay, in terms of medical care, all of the things that you would associate with union work. They've gone from being in this constitutional carve-out space, to actually having a living wage and being able to function as human beings and not give up a part of their lives to play Minor League Baseball for that lotto chance hope of making it to the big show.
I really hope college athletes are paying attention to this, quite frankly, because there's no reason to have to live on the wing and a prayer of getting some sort of name, image and likeness money. There are other ways to organize to make sure that you have some sense of justice relative to the wealth you produce for an institution.
Melissa: You mentioned college sport, which means, since I've got you, we got to take a moment and talk about the LSU Lady Tigers and not only that win of the NCAA championship but also the politics that showed up. Want to walk us through that a bit?
Dave: I'm going to start with what I believe in a fair world, in a just world would be the big headline from this game. Iowa and Caitlin Clark beating South Carolina, which nobody expected, undefeated juggernaut, making it to the finals, playing against an LSU team that few people thought would make it to the finals, led by the Great Angel Reese. Terrific game, 9.9 million people watched, 12.6 million at its peak. More people watching than watch the World Series.
That ideally would be what we should talk about but instead, what a lot of the discussion was about was Angel Reese, who is a proud Black woman, making a gesture towards Caitlin Clark, who is white, making a gesture that Caitlin Clark is like her staple that she makes that you can't see me, John Cena gesture, where you put your hand in front of your face and move it side to side. What came out of this was a lot of right-wing punditry, all of a sudden become like these great defenders of Caitlin Clark against the bad sportsmanship of Angel Reese.
When I say that they were upset by Angel Reese's gesture towards Caitlin Clark, I mean it was profane. It was racist. It was ugly. Angel Reese, two things that happened after this to me sum up the politics of this and sum up that 2023 is not 2013. It is not 2003, it is not 1993. The first is that Angel Reese was proud in her resistance to that narrative. She got up to that microphone where people expected her to apologize and quite the opposite, she defended the right to play with emotion.
She defended the right to play with a little bit of swag, and frankly, she defended the right to be a hooper from Baltimore. Everybody knows that hoopers of Baltimore play with a little extra sauce. Why should that only be the men? The other part of the story that's so important is not just Angel Reese not backing down, but then Caitlin Clark refusing to play the far right wing game. She was given every opportunity to speak her grievance about how Angel Reese made her feel and about feeling bullied.
She was asked these questions that are so racially loaded about, did you feel bullied? Like, are you upset? Do you want to accept Jill Biden's invitation and also go to the White House with LSU? Would that make you feel better? Caitlin Clark's response each time was in defense of all true hoopers everywhere, and also Angel Reese and LSU. Defending the right to be emotional, defending the right to talk trash, and frankly, defending the right to be basketball players and not be MAGA ponds, for some sort of cultural war that they did not ask to be a part of.
Melissa: I got to say, you've said it before and it was a moment when it all came together that, if we really want to see how athletes can use their public platforms to model something different about our social and political world, we have got to turn our attention to centering women in sports.
Dave: Oh, and may I just make one addendum to that, young women in sports because I feel like this generation is just not having it.
Melissa: Dave Zirin is sports editor at The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect. Dave, as always, thanks for taking the time with us.
Dave: Oh, it's my joy, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
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