For the last decade, baseball seemed to be slowly but surely dying of an incurable case of being extremely boring. Players were boring. The games were long and boring. The National League was really, really boring. Now, it’s not. It’s extremely not. It’s so thoroughly not that the MLB now provides more entertainment per gruelingly long contest than the NFL, which never became “America’s Pastime” but did inspire a new one: watching football. Sure, nothing can beat the soap opera drama of the NBA, but the MLB is resurgent, having used its decades in the wilderness as a sort of extended rebuilding year.
For the moment, baseball is more fun to watch than football. It’s an unexpected situation, but also probably good for America, which needs the comforting stability of baseball right now, and for fans, who can ignore the scuzzy economics of the sport far more easily than they can ignore the scuzzy economics and political opportunism of Jerry Jones.
Thanks to the most home runs ever hit in a season, the historically dominant start (followed by a near-historic meltdown) by the Dodgers, and a wide range of unconventional, but lovable superstars, this season of baseball was not just compelling, it was incredibly entertaining. The league feels like it stepped into a time machine and headed back to the 1990s, minus the steroids (maybe).
And the fun has only grown with the start of the playoffs, as all seven remaining playoff teams have a compelling narrative that makes them worth rooting for. After being one measly run away from their first World Series title in 69 years, the Cleveland Indians couldn’t make it past the first round, as last night they were eliminated by strikeout-prone superstar Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees. And last year’s champions the Chicago Cubs are going to have to take down refreshingly arrogant Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals to defend their title.
The winners of these series have the Astros and Dodgers, the two best teams in their respective conferences, waiting for them. Will Clayton Kershaw be able to get past six innings? Can the Astros finally make the jump from lovable underdog to real contenders? No idea, but it’s going to be fun to find out one way or another.
There is no question that baseball is exciting again, but what is the cause for baseball’s quiet renaissance? There are a lot of different reasons — some have to do with money, others have to do with physics — but the core reason is, ironically, that baseball never tried to change to appeal to fans. For a while, this seemed like a disadvantage, as basketball and football embraced new rules on and off the field to make the game more efficient and enhance the fan experience. Baseball took the same road it always traveled and it made all the difference. What was once seen as a self-enforced obsolescence has now become an admirable and principled stance. Baseball doesn’t lean on gimmicks to pander to fans. Baseball isn’t chasing fads or anticipating trends. Baseball is about baseball so the quality of the play consistently improves.
Baseball is also helped because it is a true team sport. Unlike basketball, a baseball team can’t simply add one player and suddenly be a different team. There is no one savior in baseball, as even the best pitchers only play once every five games. So building a team is an excruciatingly long and intense process, where you have no idea whether or not all your hard work will pay off or blow up in your face. But with this great risk comes great reward. When a baseball team has true depth and talent, it’s a marvel to behold. And right now, there is an unusually high number of extremely well-constructed teams. The result? A lot of good baseball. Don’t believe me? Watch the playoffs.
While baseball has experienced a resurgence, football, which enjoyed over a decade of undisputed dominance in American sports, seems to finally be heading towards its inevitable decline. Failed political stunts by Vice Presidents aside, the level of play simply has not matched the game at the height of its powers. Through five weeks, teams have struggled with turnovers and missed tackles, leading to a lot of ugly play.
The NFL has a giant target on its back. When a sport is on the rise, people only pay attention to the good but once you’ve reached the top, people start to notice the bad. Is football actually any worse than it was when everyone loved it? Maybe not but it feels worse and, for narrative-obsessed sports fans, that’s all that really matters.
The same things that people used to love about football are now the center points of criticism against the NFL. A huge part of football’s appeal is that it’s a tough sport. While soccer encourages flopping and baseball is the only sport where out of shape people can succeed, football thrived on hits that caused long-term trauma mentality. Now, the crushing hits we once celebrated are difficult to watch.
The concussions have always been there, along with the controlling, money-hungry owners and the low scoring, mistake-filled games. We’re just noticing them for the first time. These used to be obstacles for football to valiantly overcome. Now, with the burden of expectation, they are exactly what is dragging football down. Combined with the recent political unrest and noticeably sloppy player, this giant, concussed elephant might just be the first block pulled in the shaky Jenga tower that is the National Football League.
So if you are hoping to find another sport to obsess over while ignoring the daunting weight of existence in the modern world, why not dust off your old ball cap and give baseball another try? It may not have the pure spectacle of the NBA or the intense physicality of the NFL but there’s still nothing like getting to watch an unknown become an instant legend with a timely hit. Because after taking a few years off, baseball is back and as fun as ever. And that is something we should all celebrate.