My days as a sentient observer of the sports world began in about 1994. That was the year I turned 11, and the year of the World Series–cancelling MLB strike, which introduced me to the novel idea that what is might soon not be. When baseball returned in 1995, it was noticeably less popular, both in my household and in general, and so for the last 22 years the baseball world has wrung its hands, with particular attention paid to the dwindling interest in baseball among African-American boys.
It’s easy to understand why this would be seen as a problem for Major League Baseball. But for the rest of us it’s less clear why, specifically, the sporting tastes of children (black or otherwise) deserves our consternation. If kids prefer basketball, soccer and football to baseball, well, that’s just the world evolving. Marching band music doesn’t sell much these days, either, and nobody cares but the descendants of John Philip Sousa.
The sporting press does not seem to see it this way when it comes to the national pastime, possibly because baseball is still sometimes referred to as the national pastime, even though it’s been decades since that was the case. Baseball, for all my life, has been said to be in need of a jolt, and there has now come along a prospect with talent so delirious that he could be drafted in the first round as a pitcher or a shortstop, and he could probably play in the outfield too.
But before he becomes a face of baseball, he is going to need a position, and on that subject you will find a wide swath of opinions about Christian Hunter Greene. Several scouts agree that he is the best two-way amateur prospect they have ever seen, a first-round pick as a pitcher and a shortstop, with comps to Noah Syndergaard on the mound and Alex Rodriguez in the field. But arms are easier to project than bats, and come June, Greene will likely be drafted No. 1 by the Twins (or No. 2 by the Reds) because he touches 102, commands three pitches and routinely shreds the strings of his catcher’s old Rawlings Gold Glove. Putting him on the hill, and keeping him there, is the safe bet. If all goes as planned, he will crack a big league rotation by 20, and his 33 1⁄2-inch, 30 1⁄2-ounce Marucci will collect dust.
In other words, the baseball people are already screwing this up.
If Hunter Greene could realistically pitch and play shortstop in the Major Leagues, then that’s what he should do, and he should be paid one-thousand-billion dollars to do it.
The Baseball Guys are pre-emptively waving off that notion, raising the concern that if Greene is a starting pitcher, well, you can’t just have him going out to shortstop the next day and making hard throws to first base. It’ll foul up his whole schedule.
This is a concern raised by someone who lacks creativity, courage, or both. Heaven forbid you adjust your plan in order to take advantage of your assets.
Use your tight end as a … wide receiver?
You want to build a LUXURY sport-utility vehicle?
You’re gonna put bacon on a … donut?
Baseball skills are difficult to learn, much less master, and we can all acknowledge the odds would be against this. It would be one of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen in sports, but it would certainly be within the realm of things we’ve seen in sports. Things like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and Rick Ankiel.
Theoretically, the main reason baseball players don’t usually play multiple positions is that they lack the skill to do so (their stamina being a secondary concern). This is especially true of pitchers, many of whom cannot tie their own shoes without holding their breath. Over time, the specificity and sophistication of defensive play at the professional level has resulted in a tried-and-true division of labor for pro baseball teams, and it’s understandable why a manager would not want to deviate from it.
“It’s a no-brainer, right?” says the official. “The guy sits in the upper 90s, throws breaking balls for strikes and fields the position like no other. He’s pick-and-play. That’s the conventional thinking. But I just don’t know if this is the time for conventional thinking. What if Hunter Greene is the freak?”
Yes, what if Hunter Greene is The Freak?
If that’s the case. If Hunter Greene is The Freak, and he is not allowed to display that freakishness by pitching and playing the field, Major League Baseball will have blown its best opportunity of my lifetime.
I’m not going to blame the strike for what happened to my interest in baseball, but it was particularly poorly timed for me and I’d imagine a lot of kids my age. The 1993 Final Four, NBA Finals and NFL season were the events that brought me into full sports consciousness. Before that, I’d watch games, but randomly, and without any narrative context. I was an avid baseball player (pitched and played third). When the 1994 baseball season came around I was excited about David Cone and Brian McRae, who I knew from baseball cards, and what they might do that year for the Kansas City Royals, who I understood to be, “bad.” We didn’t have cable, but the Royals were broadcast locally all over Kansas and, thus, were my only access to Major League Baseball outside of the newspapers or local sportscasts.
Well, the Royals were above .500, and everybody was getting pretty excited when the whole thing shut down. When baseball came back in 1995, the stadiums were empty, the Royals sucked, and baseball never quite sucked me in again.
Baseball has a large and passionate audience. Some of baseball’s core fans seem to love baseball itself more than they love any particular team. There are lots of social and cultural explanations for this that don’t need fleshed-out here, but as is the case for all sports leagues, the real trick is luring in the ambivalent. Rules changes of various kinds can be useful to this end, but what drives human interest and connection is stories. Whenever leagues thrive, they have fascinating superstars doing dazzling things amid dramatic ups and downs.
Baseball doesn’t have any fascinating superstars. I understand that as a Millennial I’m supposed to be excited to see Bryce Harper flip his bat after a home run, but I just don’t care. It’s a pose, and not even an original one. It’s boring.
But a prodigious rookie who throws 100 mph and plays shortstop in between starts? Yeah, I want to see if he can pull that off. I want to see a manager manage that situation, ideally Jim Leyland. And I want us all to get to sit around and argue about whether or not they’re all blowing it.
If it doesn’t work, everybody gets fired, but that’s what happens anyway. And if it works? Then there is an authentically new thing in the sports world.
Who knows. Maybe kids will think that’s cool.