Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett heard enough. Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo just insulted another pitcher, and Garrett wasn’t going to stand for it. “Joey, shut up,” Garrett sniped. In response, Gallo lobbed a vicious shot at Garrett’s ability. “Just stand there and he’ll walk you,” Gallo said.
It was a moment that should have precipitated a brawl. Instead, everyone was laughing.
It’s interactions like these that make the “MLB The Show” Players League worth watching. Sure, the gameplay has been fun and exciting at times, but it’s the genuine banter between the players that gives baseball fans a reason to tune in. This tournament, which is only happening because there are no real baseball games, might have allowed Major League Baseball to discover a solution to one of its bigger problems — how to promote its young stars in an authentic way.
For all the young talent around the game, there’s a belief baseball isn’t doing enough to promote its own players. Turns out, the best way to do that isn’t an ad campaign; it’s letting the players be themselves. Over the past couple weeks, the Players League has already delivered some fun moments from players. The fact that it’s also providing fans with some much-needed sports-related content is just a bonus.
The event, which the league announced April 10, features one player from every team competing against each other in “MLB The Show 20.” Major League Baseball has donated $5,000 to the Boys & Girls Club affiliate in each team’s community. The winner of the tournament will have an additional $25,000 donated to their region’s Boys and Girls Club.
That particular clip — which also features Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell — has been liked nearly 5,000 times on Twitter and it’s not hard to see why. Fans want to know how it really feels to pitch to Joey Gallo.
The only non-player in that clip — MLB Network’s Robert Flores — knows what the fans are craving. On top of his duties on “MLB Central” — which is still producing three digital segments a week — Flores has served as a host/commentator for a portion of the tournament. He was the one responsible for asking the question fans wanted to hear.
So when Snell immediately jumped in to relay a story about Gallo bunting against Snell in one at-bat and then taking Snell “800 feet [to] dead center in the next at-bat, Flores knew fans would love the exchange.
“It’s been cool to witness and be a part of those moments,” Flores told Yahoo Sports.
While the tournament is new for everyone involved, Flores has familiarity with both video games and streaming. A long-time lover of video games, Flores — whose first system was a Mattel Intellivision — has been streaming sports games for years now.
Though the tournament is taking place under less than ideal circumstances — as the world is stuck in self isolation due to the coronavirus — Flores understands how watching athletes play video games can help fans get through self isolation.
“I think it speaks to, one, just how important sports is to our culture to our entertainment, to our way of life,” Flores said. “Clearly these are dangerous times, very serious times. It’s something — I keep using the word surreal because that’s what it is. But it just shows that people are really starved for entertainment, for content. And if video games or esports, if they can provide that during this unusual time then yeah, I think that’s really cool.”
Through just a couple games, fans have already heard Snell pitch a new strikeout celebration to Hunter Pence, Lucas Giolito talk about how young pitchers can increase fastball velocity and Cole Tucker discuss music and his love for “High School Musical.” Fans have also seen Bo Bichette, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. lose it after hitting home runs as themselves. And Pence celebrating his virtual self picking up a walk-off hit.
Flores cites those celebrations by Bichette and Tatis as some of the highlights of the tournament thus far.
“It just underscores that these guys have some really cool personalities and that they can be very relatable,” Flores says. “Because, look, when you hit a homer in a big moment of the game while you’re playing “MLB The Show,” yeah, you’re definitely going to get pumped and get excited. So, I think it’s cool to let the fans get a peek at that.”
Fans looking to tune in can watch the tournament on MLB Network’s new Twitch channel and the MLB YouTube page. The games will also be broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, FS1 and MLB Network, the league announced Thursday.
Through a couple weeks, Gallo leads the way a 17-3 record. Snell and Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Gavin Lux aren’t far behind, however. The eight teams with the best records will advance to the playoffs.
As far as an overall winner, Flores is high on both Gallo and Snell as the favorites, but says to “look out for” Baltimore Orioles outfielder Dwight Smith Jr., who has gone 12-7 despite using the Orioles, the lowest rated team in “MLB The Show 20.”
While the Players League started due to a less-than-optimal situation, Flores hopes the event can continue for years to come.
“This has been a really cool event and hopefully it’s something that can continue,” Flores says. “Maybe in an offseason, maybe you do an abridged version at the All-Star Game or something like that … I think it’s a really neat event. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. It’s something I’ve thought about really for over a year: This particular game, our network finding a way to dip our toe, if you will, into the realm of esports. I just think it’s a growing form of entertainment and hopefully our platform and our network can find a way to continue to be a part of it.”
That will be the challenge moving forward. Once things return to normal, the league will have to figure out ways to replicate the highs of the Players League. MLB has already explored one possible solution, as it experimented with putting microphones on players during spring training. Expanding that idea could be a great way to capitalize on what the Players League is doing right. Holding smaller video-game tournaments, as Flores suggested, could be an option as well.
As long as it’s authentic, it will play. Fans may never know the experience of Joey Gallo hitting a home run off them, but they can live through Snell when he tells the story. Especially, when he describes it as an 800-foot blast.
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