“Four hours of hell.” Those are the words that an opposing National League manager used to describe the atmosphere of playing in Citizens Bank Park during the 2022 postseason. The raucous energy of the home crowd, the opposing coach told Rob Thomson this offseason, was so suffocating that his players, “couldn’t think straight.” At home, you could feel it through the television screen, in the car you could hear it through the radio waves, the thundering stampede of a city on its feet. No wonder the away team couldn’t think straight.
Baseball, at its purest, has always been a game of atmosphere. The small moments, the three nights in August during a pennant race, the complete game, the blown save would all feel infinitesimal in the span of a six-month long season if it weren’t from the atmosphere that surrounded them. The nightly oohs and aahs, ups and downs of a crowd riveted by the action before them are the reason the sport, as a form of public spectacle, succeeds. If the unfathomable turnout during the Phillies playoff run this fall proves anything, it’s that when the games matter the most, the fans will show up.
But what happens when the games, at least to the common spectator, matter the least? Where do the fans go in the dog days of summer, when it’s nearly too humid to attend an evening game and excitement for the season has lulled into a tropical coma? How can Major League Baseball keep fans in seats, much less from turning to a different channel on the TV?
As the average fan of Major League Baseball grows older and older and the game seems to appeal less to the younger generation with each passing year, the league is searching desperately for ways to make the game more enticing to a fanbase that seemingly lacks the patience for it. They’ve abandoned the shift, cemented the designated hitter in both leagues, and toyed with the baseballs with the hopes of a faster, higher-scoring, and more exciting game.
The issue, however, is that baseball will never be America’s most exciting game. It’ll never compete with basketball’s soaring slam dunks or football’s high-flying touchdowns. No matter what baseball does, it cannot change its identity as a sport.
What it can do, however, is work to highlight its smaller, more atmospheric moments. What baseball has that football and basketball do not is length – the 162 game schedule is nearly twice of the NBA’s 82 games and almost ten times that of an NFL season. The most exciting part of the Phillies miraculous run, one could argue, occurred not in October but in the summer months of June and July, when Rob Thomson took over the reins and rode a hot streak like no other to the team’s first postseason berth in 11 years. October’s home crowd at Citizens Bank Park was a validation, but the journey the team took to get there was the spectacle itself. Thomson’s nine game win streak upon being named interim manager, Bryce Harper’s anguishing injury and triumphant return, Kyle Schwarber’s red hot June – all milestone’s on the journey of a decade.
What Major League Baseball can and should do is emphasize these milestones. Talk of the Phillies’ clubhouse chemistry grew and grew with each mounting success – who wouldn’t have wanted to see it for themselves? In a 162 game season, what happens behind the scenes could wind up to be just as exciting as what’s unveiled before our eyes on game day. The secret of the Phillies miraculous run remain largely hidden – the story, validated by each home run and improbable win, is what could draw the fan in and keep their attention throughout the year. A television program in the line of the NFL’s Hard Knocks, tracking the Phillies or any other contending team throughout the year, through every hard fought victory and bitter defeat, could be the key to growing the game beyond its incumbent fanbase. Having an eye on the pulse of a ball club, on the players themselves, might be just as exciting as more base runners and higher scores.