With the election of Rob Manfred to replace Bud Selig as Commissioner of Baseball, it is a good time to take a minute and look at the future of baseball. The Office of the Commissioner simultaneously has enormous potential, but little power. Without support from the owners, nearly nothing will get done.
Selig was excellent at marshaling a majority of team owners behind his propositions and while Manfred does not necessarily posses the same skills, much of the innovative nature of recent baseball will continue.
First let us look at what has happened in the last two decades under Bud Selig. Interleague play was introduced, revenue sharing began, the wild card was created and then expanded, the 1994 players’ strike occurred, and replay capability was added.
While all of these issues are highly contentious (with the possible exception of interleague play), it is undeniable that Mr. Selig raised the profile and revenue of the league. This is the challenge that has been passed to Rob Manfred. Selig did good work on that front, but baseball continues to lose market share to other major sports, particularly among young, minority or foreign audiences.
So with that in mind, lets explore some possible changes to the game in the next few decades.
Dealing with the PED Scandals:
One thing that Bud Selig was heavily faulted for was his handling of PED users. All baseball history between 1991 and 2003 is now considered highly suspect, with some claiming that upwards of 40% of all players were using some sort of performance enhancing drug.
While some major names such as Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Alex Rodriguez continue to be associated with ongoing or recent usage, the bulk of the PED era has passed. The question is now how to move forward. With a new commissioner and a fairly broad mandate to fix the problem, expect to see more robust measures put in place accompanied with a well-defined punishment program that may include extremely harsh penalties.
The more interesting question regarding PEDs is the treatment of those who have admitted to usage in the past, particularly those who hold monumental records and will certainly be considered for the Hall of Fame.
The earlier players from this era such as Mark McGwire have already been considered many times and are unlikely to be elected before their window expires, but more recent players such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens still have a solid chance (each received ~30% of votes on the 2014 ballot).
Recent changes to the voting rules shorted their window by 5 years, but perhaps Manfred will devise a strategy for dealing with the legacy of these players that will honor their contributions, while highlighting their shortcomings.
Pace of the Game:
The chief complaint of non-baseball fans or those who only sporadically watch the game is the slow pace and long game length. While diehard fans rarely complain, they are often absorbed in nuances that new fans neither see nor appreciate.
This is cited as one of the major obstacles to attracting new fans. The question is, whether the game can be shortened, or the pace increased without alienating existing fans.
Writing out all of the proposals for this would take up way more space than I am willing to dedicate to this article, but a few include a pitch clock akin to basketball’s shot clock, a limit on manager visits to the mound, shortening the game to 7 innings, eliminating extra innings, or a pitch limit per at bat.
Personally, I am against any of these proposals, as I like the game as it is, but I believe that something will be done in the upcoming years.
This is a bit more of a long shot, but MLB baseball may cease to be a North American activity. Past years have seen opening day games and exhibition games played in Latin America, Japan, Europe and Australia to massive audiences and fairly dedicated fans.
Some markets where baseball is already popular such as Central America, South America and the Caribbean lack a high level league akin the MLB. Raising the profile of the league, attracting new fans and generating additional revenue can all be accomplished by market expansion.
Another expansion (or perhaps the relocation of some existing teams) could be likely in the next 20 years, and MLB would be remiss to ignore Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as potential sites for new teams (Cuba being unavailable due to political issues). These regions would not present an unreasonable burden as far as travel, they already have massive baseball fan bases, and they would help expand the popularity of the league across the world.