MLB — Baseball lightens up, goes deep at the Midsummer Classic

MLB

WASHINGTON — As Major League Baseball transitions to a new era marked by home runs, strikeouts and fewer balls than ever making contract with grass and dirt, the game’s decision-makers are plunging ahead with a new mandate: package the home runs, strikeouts and 98 mph fastballs with technological innovation, and sell it in a way that will make for must-see viewing during “jewel” events.

There will never be a more compelling test lab than the 2018 All-Star Game — when new-school ball combined with NBA-style marketing to provide a snapshot of where the game is headed.

Monday night at Nationals Park, hometown favorite Bryce Harper staged a frantic comeback to win the Home Run Derby and send a sellout crowd home happy. The eight Derby participants launched a record 221 home runs, amid a barrage of fancy graphics and Statcast readouts.

On Tuesday, Mike Trout and Aaron Judge got things rolling with early solo shots. The teams combined for an All-Star Game record 10 home runs while striking out 25 times in the American League’s 8-6 victory in 10 innings.

All those whiffs and trots were interspersed with some entertaining glimpses of players letting down their hair and doing their best to engage. Matt Kemp, Charlie Blackmon, Francisco Lindor, Trout and Harper were among the players mic’d up for the national TV broadcast. Trout, Judge and Mookie Betts posed for group selfies in the outfield during a pitching change. And during one juncture early in the game, Cleveland pitcher Trevor Bauer took to his Twitter account and marveled at the parade of pitchers lighting up the radar gun.

“I love it,” Lindor said. “This is a show. We are entertainers. People want to see home runs. People want to see strikeouts. They also want to feel they’re in the dugout with us or out at shortstop with me. Having the mic on and being able to interact with guys on the field, that was awesome. Those things are great.”

The All-Star Game is typically a time for the game to pause and reflect, and commissioner Rob Manfred and Players Association executive director Tony Clark addressed several prominent issues during their traditional Baseball Writers Association luncheon Tuesday. Along with shifts, the designated hitter and potential labor strife, they addressed the nettlesome question of whether MLB does enough to market its most charismatic and recognizable players.

The conversation inevitably turned to Trout, a no-frills guy who would rather spend his offseasons at home in Millville, New Jersey, cheering on the Philadelphia Eagles and going hunting than jetting around the country to appear in promotional campaigns.

“Mike has made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time,” Manfred said. “I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage, and that takes time and effort.”

Upon leaving the park late Tuesday, Trout reiterated that he would prefer not to stretch himself too thin.

“I do as much as I can, but it’s a long baseball season,” Trout said. “I’ve got to pick and choose when I want to do things and go from there.”

Before some late, disturbing revelations about Milwaukee’s Josh Hader reinforced the hazards of social media, the All-Star Game and its related activities served as a showcase for Trout and several other players entrusted with carrying the banner for the game:

• With his Derby performance, Harper appeared to be enjoying himself for the first time in his free-agent walk year. He showed a thoughtful, introspective side that conflicted markedly with the dour Bryce on display in April, May and June. Will he unwind, stage a second-half comeback and lead the Nationals to the postseason in what might be his final season in Washington, or retreat into his cocoon before hitting the open market in November?

• Trout showed once again why he’s the game’s marquee player. With his third-inning home run off Jacob deGrom, he is a career 7-for-15 (.467) in the All-Star Game. That might have to suffice for now on the big stage, because the Angels are 14 games out of first place in the AL West and have very slim odds of making it to the postseason.

Manny Machado, the undisputed prize of the trade deadline market, did an admirable job of addressing the flood of media requests without cracking. Machado vowed to have a good time in D.C., and he snapped selfies with Kemp and Nick Markakis at second base in what was almost certainly his final appearance in an Orioles uniform. Mercifully, for him, the uncertainty is about to end.

“It was tough,” Trout said. “He was probably sick of it. He just wanted to find out where he was going. He’s a great dude and a great person off the field. They’re saying Dodgers, so I’m sure he’ll like it in L.A.”

• Judge, who won the Home Run Derby last season, went deep against Max Scherzer in the first inning to become the youngest Yankees hitter since Mickey Mantle in 1956 to homer in a Midsummer Classic. Now he’ll head back to the Bronx and take part in what will be an epic AL East race against the Boston Red Sox.

No matter how things unfold from here, Trout, Harper and friends will always have Washington. There will be the inevitable debate over MLB’s new media approach — is it inspired, or merely frivolous and gimmicky? But the long-term stakes are high enough that folks in Manhattan will spend a lot of time tinkering with the formula.

“There’s a ton of personality in our game,” said A.J. Hinch, the American League’s All-Star manager. “But sometimes baseball gets a little bit of a side-swipe — that we are this boring sport that methodically goes through the games. And yet, if you allow the players to be themselves and showcase themselves, you’re amazed what you find out about these guys.

“For this event, it was great trial and error. I don’t know how it played out socially. But from the players’ perspective, to be able to let loose a little bit and enjoy each other was pretty cool.”

Some innovations have limits, obviously. MLB is never going to let players carry cellphones in real games, because texting catcher’s signs from second base would be problematic. But in-game interviews, on-field microphones and social media outreach are potential vehicles to advance MLB’s goal of reaching a younger demographic.

That idea sits well with Lindor, a charismatic, bilingual star with all the attributes to be a prime face of the game for years to come. Upon leaving the clubhouse Tuesday, Lindor wore a black fedora, Gucci shoes and a fire-engine-red backpack over his shoulders. He knows a little bit about style.

“I’m not trying to disrespect anybody,” Lindor said. “The game is played extremely well, and the guys who set up the path for me to be playing this game did a tremendous job. I’m blessed to be here. But it’s a different era. Social media has grown a lot.”

The “three true outcomes” style of ball — home runs, strikeouts and walks — isn’t going away anytime soon. Can baseball find a way to combine it with more compelling personal narratives in the years to come? There’s an awful lot riding on the answer.

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