By Molly Knight
TOKYO -- If you're a baseball fan with an Internet connection, you've undoubtedly read scary stories about how the sport's popularity in the U.S. is circling the drain. And while reports of Major League Baseball's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, it's true that younger viewers with waning attention spans may be gravitating toward faster-paced, flashier sports where celebrating individual success is encouraged, not greeted with fastballs to the ear.
Over the weekend I flew to Tokyo with four friends (two guys, two gals, all moderate sports fans). In between sake binges and fish market tours, I coaxed them into going to see the Yomiuri Giants play their crosstown rivals, the Yakult Swallows, at the Tokyo Dome, and asked them for their thoughts on what worked for them and what didn't.
Here are some takeaways from the experience that could help make MLB games more appealing to a younger audience.
5. Beer girls.
At Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) games, women with mini-kegs in their backpacks roam the concourses to sell brews to spectators. The guys in our group loved this, obviously. The three of us women spent the game debating whether it was genius or gross. Our verdict was split. We liked that the women were festive but covered up, dressed like the Rockford Peaches from "A League of Their Own" with uniform tops buttoned up to their clavicles and skorts that fell nearly to their knees. We didn't like that there were no beer boys, and thought it would have been more fun to have a mix of both. We are also fairly certain that if this were brought to America, beer companies would screw it up by dressing their brand ambassadors in as little clothing as possible, resulting in nine innings of sexual harassment.
But overall we liked how easy it was to get suds, soda and food in our seats, and found that the kegs kept the beer much colder than whatever they use in the U.S. The beer ladies also delivered little cups of tap water to almost everyone in our section in the ninth inning, to perhaps atone for their role in getting everyone hammered. No one drove to the game (their subway system is the best), so I would only encourage this beer delivery operation at stadiums with excellent public transportation (let's do trial runs in New York).
4. Better merch for visiting fans.
Have you ever been to an away game and tried to buy a jersey with your favorite player's name on the back? Of course not, because you know it's rarely possible. The game we attended was a Giants home contest, and because the Giants are the Japanese Yankees, we decided we were Swallows fans, and set out to find underdog gear. We soon located a dedicated Swallows merch stand with jerseys, hats, banners, mugs, umbrellas, wristbands and teddy bears -- and wound up with four Tetsuto Yamada shirseys, among other souvenirs. (You may want to remember Yamada's name. He's a twenty-two year old second baseman who hit 29 home runs last year and stole 15 bases. Over the course of four seasons, he owns a .300/.379/.462 slash line and is a top MLB position player prospect.)
Why is making sure all home teams carry ample visiting merchandise an important mandate for MLB? Because the sport needs to encourage fandom taking root wherever it can. Say you're from Dallas and you live in Los Angeles and take your kid to Dodger Stadium to see the Rangers next week. Wouldn't it be more fun if you could tell her about how Adrian Beltre hates it when people play with his hair (just like she does!) and then buy her a Beltre shirsey she could wear while cheering him in solidarity? This is such an obvious and easy thing to do, if home teams could just be secure enough to help facilitate opposing fandom. (This may not be an easy sell.)
3. Visiting cheering sections.
The fan breakdown of the game we went to was roughly 90 percent Giants supporters and 10 percent Swallows. But the Swallows fans were able to make a lot of noise because most of them were sitting together in the left field bleachers. This was great for a few of reasons. First: The fans for both teams sang and chanted through the entire game, alternating turns when their squad was up to bat. In that sense, it felt way closer to college football than Major League Baseball. Second: Grouping the away fans together made the game more intense, because there was always a section to look at for reactions after fantastic plays or agonizing ones. The practice of setting aside a lot of crappy seats for visiting fans would make attending games roughly 20 percent more fun, and I'm guessing it would also help home teams sell more tickets. If teams are worried about fights or other shenanigans, they should do what the Giants did, which was staff police at the top of the visiting section and make it impossible to get into either the home or away SRO areas without a ticket for that specific section.
We spent $100 each to sit in the 15th row behind home plate and tried to show our stubs to get into the bleachers, like, "Hey! We paid like five times what it cost to sit here, but we're really dumb, lazy Americans who didn't know that this was the place to be. Please, please can we sit here?!" and were basically (and rightfully) laughed at. Designated cheering sections are awesome. They make games more intense and deepen the tribal nature of fandom. If football teams can do it, why can't baseball?
2. Get guys like Shohei Otani.
We've lured some great Japanese ballplayers over here, but not enough. Jim Caple published a great story Wednesday about Otani, a pitcher for the Nippon-Ham Fighters who touches 100 on the radar gun and also hits a lot of homers as a DH and outfielder in the games he's not pitching. He wanted to go straight to MLB out of high school, but interested teams saw him as a pitcher and told him there was no way in hell they'd let him play the field on off days. Because he wanted to do both, Otani opted to stay in Japan and entered into the amateur draft over there. Now we may not get to see him stateside until the Fighters post him five or six years from now. That sucks. If a guy is fantastic as a hitter and pitcher, why can't he do both over here? Even though culturally Japan is very serious and respectful, and its citizens generally Play Their Lives the Right Way, they recognize that baseball is a game. They let their players pimp home runs and play outfield and pitch because the purpose is to have as much fun as possible. Obviously, not every American pitcher would want the chance to hit every day. But some who are good at it would love it, and why wouldn't we encourage exceptions for exceptional athletes. I mean, how great is it when JJ Watt scores touchdowns?
1. Really make hitters stay in the batter's box.
Sorry Bryce Harper. I love you forever, because you're the best, but you were wrong Wednesday night when you argued balls and strikes, took a leisurely stroll toward your dugout, and then flipped off MLB's new "stay in the batter's box" rule by tapping the chalk with your toe after the home plate umpire told you to get your ass back in there.
At first I was against this particular pace of play rule change, because I thought it would be awkward and rush epic confrontations that require as many mental gymnastics as fast-twitch muscle fibers. But in the Giants/Swallows game, the innings flew by, in part because batters only left the box if they fouled a pitch off into the crowd, and that was so they could give the home plate umpire time to retrieve a replacement ball from his side pouch and toss it back to the pitcher.
MLB made this a rule before the season, but hitters mostly ignore it, with Harper himself explaining after he was tossed yesterday: "I'll take the fine, because it's not a priority for us to get in the box unless we really need to." Um, Bryce, you really need to. Trust me. The sport needs you to move it along, and may have to do so by making the batter's box rule stricter than it is now. You may be annoyed, but on the bright side you won't have to wait as long to hit again. And reducing the time between your at-bats, and Mike Trout's at-bats, and Joc Pederson's at-bats, would only make the game that much better.
Molly Knight covered baseball for ESPN the Magazine for seven years and left to write a book on the Dodgers. That book, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The L.A. Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, will be published by Simon & Schuster on July 14. She lives in Los Angeles.