Melissa Harris-Perry: You are listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega.
On Tuesday night, Major League Baseball's most talented players gathered in Denver, Colorado for the 2021 All-Star game. The American League won the game five to two. Just as notable as the final result, was the presence of Los Angeles player, Shohei Ohtani. Not only did Ohtani hit lead off for the American League, he was also the team's starting pitcher. Now taking on these dual roles is rare in pro baseball, where teams often do everything they can to protect their star pitchers from injury, but Ohtani who got his start in Japan, has shown just how exciting it is to watch a player excel both on the mound-
Speaker 2: Ohtani on the one two. [unintelligible 00:00:46] fast ball. 99.
Melissa Harris-Perry: -and at the plate.
Speaker 2: Got it. Got it. Got it. 33.
Speaker 3: Oh, wow. Where did that one go?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ohtani's success comes at a moment when Major League Baseball is dealing with an aging fan base and low game attendance that date back prior to the pandemic, but even as exciting players like Ohtani add a flare to the game that could pull in younger fans, baseball's gatekeepers have often used thinly veiled racism to criticize this emerging group of stars.
For more, I'm joined by Kavitha Davidson, sports and culture writer for The Athletic, and co-author of Loving Sports When They Don't Love You Back. Kavitha, it's great to have you here.
Kavitha Davidson: Hi, Melissa, thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's be honest, I'm a baseball outsider. It was definitely the incredible team of The Takeaway who pushed me to think through this, but I got to tell you, preparing for this and watching Ohtani, I'm may be a little bit hooked. Describe to me what really sets him apart as a player.
Kavitha Davidson: He's been described as The Japanese Babe Ruth, but I think that's unfair to him if you can believe that. He's something that we've never seen before, frankly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was also thinking he's much cuter than Babe Ruth, at least at the end there. What are the potential risks of having a star pitcher, who actually also plays as a designated hitter?
Kavitha Davidson: It's always injury. As you mentioned at the top, managers are trying to preserve their pitchers as much as possible especially with how hard that they're throwing, but with someone like Ohtani, we haven't seen someone who can hit as hard as he does and pitch as well as he does. It's really a generational once-in-a-lifetime thing that we're seeing him do. It's quite phenomenal to see.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're framing this as a generational, as once in a lifetime. It sounds almost Simone Biles-like in the sense of, "No, we haven't seen folks do this before." It's also getting framed around anxieties around nativism and race. ESPN host Steven Smith said something this week about Ohtani can't be the face of baseball because he uses a translator. Can you just talk a little bit about this mindset of English-speaking centrality here?
Kavitha Davidson: I have to say, I don't think that that mindset around Ohtani is actually pervasive or widespread around baseball circles. Now I think that that speaks to a larger point in America about immigrants needing to learn English in order to be successful or in order to be marketable, but Ohtani has all of the charisma that any native English speaking player could have. He is the most exciting player to watch.
I think that it's extremely short-sighted. Major League Baseball itself knows that it needs to market players like Ohtani, like Fernando Tatis Jr. who are not native English speakers, but play the game in such an exciting way in order to garner a younger and more engaged fan base, and Ohtani is definitely a pathway to that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. As you talk about garnering this fan base that is younger, that will fill those seats, especially when the pandemic is more fully under control, how much of that can happen with the thing that is standard baseball, and how much of it means baseball is going to have to change what it is?
Kavitha Davidson: Well, baseball has constantly been evolving. Baseball has this image and rightfully so of being stuck in its own past and holding onto its traditions. In a lot of ways, the traditions of baseball are part of what makes the game really beautiful. Major League Baseball as an institution has known that it's needed to evolve in the way that it markets its game, the way that it markets its players, and the way that the game itself has actually played there without getting too much into the weeds. There are all kinds of rural changes that they've been experimenting with, with improving the pace of play, with making the game go faster and all of that.
Definitely, we are coming into a generation of sports fans that needs action every second of a game and consumes their games in their medias in completely different ways. Major League Baseball has realized that they they're coming up against that barrier, and they're trying to evolve, and trying to make little adjustments to garner that future fan base and that next generation of fan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kavitha, I actually do want to go ahead and get into the weeds a little bit because it does feel to me like it's that pace of baseball that is both the only thing that I've really enjoyed about it in the past, because we've got a minor league team where I live, and so we go out and you just literally spend all day hanging out with your friends, but I only occasionally glance at what is happening with players. If I'm going to watch it on TV, I want it to move, move, move, move, and I'm not even a millennial. I'm wondering about in those weeds, how do you make baseball move more quickly?
Kavitha Davidson: For example, they've instituted a pitch clock. Pitchers can't take a certain amount of time in between pitches to literally improve pace of play. For doubleheaders, they've instituted a seven inning rule where if you have two games played in a day, then each game has to go to seven innings instead of nine. There are little tweaks that they're making. They're experimenting also with on-field tweaks, the way that shifts maybe can and cannot work in order to improve scoring and improve literally spacing on the field.
I think that the beauty of baseball is so much in those little subtle things that don't easily translate to TV watching until you've actually gotten a sense for the game. It really is just the entry point. For me, that's the biggest barrier for getting people into baseball is, if you were comparing baseball to a game like basketball where there's action, there's so much action on the court, hockey is the most action on the ice from a second-to-second perspective, but hockey is in no way the most the most popular sport in America. Football, which is the most popular sport in America, in a two-and-a-half hour game broadcast, there's about 14 minutes. That's not an exaggeration of on-field action.
I think that baseball, they have some room here to grow, but it's about perception. I think it's also about communities that you're marketing to. Major League Baseball has a diversity office, a diversity and inclusion office that knows that it's needed to market to other fans, to younger fans and it really is working on this right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll say, I did start watching golf when there was a Tiger Woods, and as exciting as hockey is, I sure don't watch it. Talk to me about whether or not the league can do enough to attract Black players and fans and bring that entry point.
Kavitha Davidson: Absolutely. This all rests on having younger players, having players who exude sheer joy in playing this game. I mentioned Fernando Tatis Jr. who, every time he hits a home run, it's a spectacle, and I say that in the best way possible, and Shohei Ohtani, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who won the All-Star game MVP just last night. We have a crop of really exciting young players who can cater to a more diverse audience. I think Major League Baseball is embracing the fact that they need to embrace these players, and whether media or older fans are not, frankly, they're not going to matter in 20 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kavitha Davidson is a sports and culture writer for The Athletic, and co-author of the book, Loving Sports When They Don't Love You Back. Kavitha, thank you so much.
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