USA Today: MLB won’t fear going extreme to attract a new generation

By Bob Nightengale — JUPITER, Fla. — OK, maybe it’s a little dramatic for Major League Baseball.

Baseball has trouble enough deciding whether the DH should be employed in both leagues, and re-defining the slide rule into second base, without overhauling Abner Doubleday’s original rules.

Still, at a time when Major League Baseball is desperately trying to bridge a generation gap with their fans – 56 was the median age of fans watching nationally televised games last year – the industry is reaching out to the youth of America.

That number is alarming, particularly considering the average age was 34 for those using the MLB At-bat application on their cell phones, tablets and TVs.

As Commissioner Rob Manfred prepares to fan out through spring training, beginning Friday in Florida, he’s intent on spreading a message integral to the sport’s prosperity: If you don’t play baseball, you probably won’t watch baseball.

“The biggest and strongest indicator of fan affinity as an adult,” Manfred told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, “is if you played as a kid. The relationship was really strong.”

So how do you get kids to start playing baseball again, instead of playing video games or other sports?

Introduce a few radical rule changes to pique their interest.

“Let’s forget the traditional mindset,” said Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who was hired in December as a special advisor to Manfred on youth programs and outreach. “We’re not ruining the game. We’re teaching the game. We’re showcasing the game.

“We want to test this out in tournament games, in consolation games, to see how it works.”

You ready?

How about starting every inning with a runner on first base? How about starting each inning with a different count? Instead of three outs an inning, how about five batters? What if players are required to steal?

“We want to put out some ideas, and try some things,” Ripken said. “Look, if someone doesn’t know how to coach baseball, it can be the most boring sport in the world, sharing one ball with eight players and a pitcher. Let’s try different elements.

“These rules have stood for so long, let’s see how we can create action plays in baseball, let a catcher block balls and throw out runners, let infielders have the potential for double plays, showcase an outfielder’s arm strength.

“You integrate these sort of things, you’re playing the game faster, quicker, and everyone is more energized.”

Who knows, you get more kids excited about baseball, maybe the next Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Chris Archer or Bryce Harper ambles over from another sport?

It’s all part of Manfred’s master plan. He introduced the “Play Ball,” initiative, hired former Los Angeles Angels GM Tony Reagins to oversee all of the youth programs, reached out to city mayors across the country for “Play Ball Summer’’ and clubs with “Play Ball Weekend” in May.

“Really, this should have been done a long time ago,’’ Ripken said. “This is a big ordeal. Baseball has lost a lot of athletes to other sports. The general feeling is that baseball is too slow, too boring.

“It’s the most dynamic game around. It’s magical and fascinating once you understand it, but for kids, it’s got to be fun. You have to introduce it in the right way. This delivers a country-wide initiative to get people kids to play. It doesn’t have to be in the formal sense, but in all ways, and having fun playing creative versions of it.”

Considering how much kids love their gadgets, the Pittsburgh Pirates and 10 other franchises have invested in Diamond Kinetics, a software that allows players to analyze their swing with a sensor on the knob of their bat. It lets them know their bat speed, exit velocity, and everything else you want to know without needing a joystick or video game.

“What really excites me about that is that it’s a technological-driven way to get kids engaged in learning the game in a serious way,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting told USA TODAY Sports, “but in a fun and different way. It’s another way to re-energize activity with the declining participation in organized sports. We want to do everything we can as a catalyst to get people engaged in not only youth sports overall, but particularly, baseball.

“I really believe we have that opportunity.”

Time is of the essence considering that youth participation in baseball and softball has steadily declined since 2000, plummeting by 40%, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

“You always see the popularity of some of the other sports, ones that kids are more engaged in,” said Reagins, MLB senior vice president for youth programs. “You wonder how these other sports get all of the attention. Well, we have to do some things that are non-traditional to get kids more involved and more appealing across the board, making it a quicker paced-game.

“There are a lot of kids who have never picked up a ball or bat, so now we want that experience to be fun and action packed. Young people are really interested in metrics, so they want to know how fast they can run, how hard they throw, everything.

“It’s going to take some time to see the numbers turn, but I really believe they will.”

And, if they do, well, maybe a whole lot more ballparks will start looking like AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Giants sell out every game, playing in front of perhaps the most entertaining and energetic crowd in baseball.

“The games in San Francisco,” Manfred said, “don’t look like a typical baseball crowd. Really, we’d like to see younger audiences like that everywhere.”

Baseball’s future may ultimately depend on it.

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