MLB can appeal to a younger audience by embracing what's behind the curtain
NEW YORK — They’re selling T-shirts that read “Savages in the Box,’’ a slightly-sanitized version of Aaron Boone’s now famous three-week-old tirade, in the Yankee Stadium souvenir shops.
The shirts are $40 a pop and the lady behind the counter told me she can hardly keep them on the shelves.
The players are wearing them in the clubhouse, too, and there is even a sportswriter version, reading “Savages in the Press Box,’’ which goes for a mere $25.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball would like to pretend, at least publicly, that baseball players and managers don’t really talk like that.
“When you got passionate guys, you’re going to hear stuff like that,’’ Joe Torre, MLB’s dean of discipline, said almost apologetically on Tuesday. “Players and managers are going to say things you don’t necessarily want to hear. I’ve done it myself, and I’m not proud of it. I’ve said things that I’m embarrassed about.’’
And that, in a nutshell, sums up baseball’s dilemma.
On one hand, the keepers of the game want to maintain the image of wholesome, hard-working young men playing a squeaky-clean game.
On the other, they sure like the money and attention generated when they get a little dirt on their sanitary stockings.
The video of Boone’s hilariously-profane tirade directed toward Brennan Miller, the rookie home plate umpire who worked the first game of a doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays in a near-empty Yankee Stadium on July 18, quickly went viral, attracting nearly a million YouTube views for its poster, Jimmy (Jomboy) O’Brien, who has nearly 300,000 followers.
The spectacle of the normally mild-mannered Boone, which began as a scolding (“You’re having a piece of s--- start to this game!’’) and ended as almost a pep talk (“Now tighten this s--- up!’’), became a sensation among fans and players alike.
Boone’s admonition to Miller -- “My guys are f-----g savages in that f-----g box’’ became a rallying cry for his team, which is running away with the AL East. Boone’s image as a laid-back SoCal surfer dude unsuited for the pressure-cooker of the Bronx was instantly burnished among his team’s rabid fan base, which views Billy Martin as the ideal all Yankee managers should aspire to be.
And those T-shirts are just flying off the racks.
By just about any modern standard, Boone’s eruption was a big hit.
And baseball, which has struggled for years to find common ground between its aging loyalists and a younger generation that finds the game boring and its players colorless, seemed to have struck gold.
And yet, when Torre came to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and made his first public comments since meting out a fine and one-game suspension to Boone for the incident, the pearl-clutching was in full swing.
“Those mics are supposed to be for crowd noise and stuff,’’ Torre said. “They're not supposed to pick up stuff like that. You got kids out there listening to that.’’
At 79, Torre is of course from a generation in which kids got slapped for using the H-word in front of their parents.
But these days, of course, just about any word goes, either on the internet, on cable TV, on network TV and even in the home. And, news flash, Major League Baseball players sometimes use the F-word. And the A-word, the B-word, the M-word, the S-word and just about any combination of those you can come up with.
Baseball, perpetually behind the times, doesn’t seem to recognize that a 19th-century sensibility does not work in a 21st-century world.
Rather than recognizing what it had in the Boone-Miller confrontation -- a potential popular-culture gold mine -- it reacted as it always has. It fined and suspended Boone for making contact with the umpire with the brim of his cap. And tried to disavow the video of the incident even as it profited from it.
Even Boone, the only party to the conversation who actually paid a price for engaging in it, saw the value in giving fans a rare peek behind the curtain.
“I think any time there’s access and you get to see some of those things, it can be a very good thing,’’ he said. “Certainly I think fans love it and want to see that. And ultimately we want to serve the fans.’’
Other sports have already figured this out. The NFL pulls back the curtain with “Hard Knocks,’’ the HBO series that offers access to a team during training camp. After one episode, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown and his frost-bitten feet are on their way to breakout stardom.
And when Vince McMahon launches his re-tooled XFL in February, do you think they will be censoring the interviews?
Baseball, however, is still stuck in an amber-colored past in which athletes drop their heads and jog to first after a home run, paw the ground in modesty when asked a question and never, ever, show each other up.
To the young generation, this all adds up to one big yawn.
Boone’s eruption, on the other hand, got everyone’s attention, even kids who would never think of trading an esports controller for a whiffle ball bat.
What Boone’s tirade said was these millionaires playing a game for a living are real people who really, really care about what they do.
What Miller’s restrained reaction said was that not all umpires are trigger-happy, would-be cops looking to run players for a dirty look.
And what the whole thing said about baseball was that there is real passion on the field that is not always apparent from the stands or even over a 60-inch 4K flat screen.
Obviously, a lot of things came together to make the Boone video possible in the first place. For one thing, the small turnout and lack of crowd noise made the on-field sound a lot more intelligible than it might have been with a full house. For another, O’Brien, a former videographer and a guy with a knack for lip-reading and finding the absurd in the everyday, had the smarts to zero in on Boone’s mouth and add subtitles to the video to make sure no one could miss the point.
“It was like the perfect storm for me,’’ he said. “But maybe not for them.’’
That’s where baseball is wrong.
What happened between a manager and an umpire at Yankee Stadium was a perfect storm for them, too.
The people who run baseball, as usual, were embarrassed by it.
Instead, they should try embracing it.
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