Opinion | Hey, loser! Here’s how to end baseball’s very boring era.

Last year, Major League Baseball introduced a series of new rules that had one primary purpose: to speed up the game and make it easier for fans to watch.

Despite players’ initial misgivings about things like pitch clocks and the predictable groans of baseball traditionalists who have always measured their openness to change by geological time, the updates were eventually hailed as a near-universal success story. Action in the form of runs scored and bases stolen increased, even as the average time of a nine-inning game dropped significantly – by a lot almost 25 minutes from the previous season.

Other rule changes are in stock for the 2024 season, as MLB hopes to plan for an even better and duller future. But if baseball really wants to increase the drama of its games and win back the hearts, minds and eyes of fans who abandoned America’s pastime for other sports, it may have to look to the past. That means it’s time to reintroduce the bench jockey.

In its early days, in the mid-19th century, baseball was considered a genteel sport defined by ethical codes of conduct agreed upon by gentlemen’s clubs. All that changed in the 1880s when a ballplayer called his name Arlie Latham started making a lot of noise. As a player, Latham reached his peak in the 1887 season when he batted .316, stole 129 bases and scored 163 runs. But his greatest contributions cannot be captured by statistics: Latham’s legacy was built on his troublesome antics – a garrulous and reckless brand of psychological gamesmanship that destroyed the gentlemanly mores of the sport.

Back then, ballplayers served as base coaches, and in that role Latham was tireless in his efforts to annoy and unsettle the opposing team. He would shout, insult and heckle; He attempted to break a pitcher’s concentration by running up and down the baseline – a tactic that was widely disapproved of and led to the introduction of the designated trainer’s box. Newspapers reported his “crazy screaming,” his “incessant wailing,” and his “disgusting speeches,” but Latham’s team continued to win. Soon other teams started crying too.

Thus came into being the great baseball tradition known as Bank jockeying – the practice of heaping verbal abuse on one’s opponents in order to disrupt their concentration or otherwise impair their performance on the field. Legendary baseball writer J. Roy Stockton once called it “probably the greatest atrocity in American sports history.” Today we would just call it trash talk.

For decades, bench jockeys – also known as “holler guys” – were a standard feature of professional baseball. The best and most effective bench jockeys, who may have owed their success to a sharp wit, a piercing voice, or a penchant for creative insults, were able to hold on to a roster spot even after their actual baseball skills had declined so much that they were just as useful to them Team like an empty can of chewing tobacco.

Bank jockeying took many forms. Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher, talked from the mound. Paige named his pitches – the Bat Dodger, the Trouble Ball, the Midnight Creeper – and got hitters on their toes by telling them exactly which one he wanted to throw or by calling in his fielders, confident in his ability to sideline hit. “I’ll throw a pea on your knee,” he yelled toward the batter’s box. Meanwhile, as a manager, John McGraw, who was said to be “a genius at making enemies,” went so far as to hire private investigators to dig up dirt on his opponents, serving as a diversionary anchor at critical moments A game was shouted out.

At the most basic level, talking nonsense raises the stakes of competitive confrontation. It puts more at stake – like pride and possible humiliation – and that makes the outcome of the competition more important than it would otherwise be. It puts pressure on the performance of everyone involved, both the speaker and the target, and requires questioning whether they can handle this additional stress and expectation.

However, it’s not just athletes who become more involved due to such excitement and abuse. We all do that. That’s why Trash Talk is such a reliable tool for marketers in the sports world and beyond. When professional wrestlers send each other insulting promos, it makes fans care more about the outcome of the match and attracts them to the arena. Trash talk is the secret behind the viral success of Wendy’s social media accounts and the basis for virtually all reality television and talking heads debate shows. It gets us to tune in and not click away.

In baseball, the bench jockey disappeared from the scene sometime in the mid-20th century. Among other things, the emergence of a players’ union and free agency fostered a sense of brotherhood among players in uniform. Athletes also imagined that they had more to lose as game controls became greater: no one wanted a retaliatory ball aimed at their head. (During the era of the bench jockey, violence in response to verbal abuse was not uncommon.) But without trash talk, baseball has lost more than the occasional dugout brawl and well-timed throws; It has lost some of its drama.

With all the success of last year’s rule changes, the question is, how much more attention would baseball get if teams gave each other a little more loudmouth bravado and bulletin board material before big playoff matchups? For one thing, teams and players could talk more nonsense to each other on social media before a match. But trash talk could also be broadcast on television during a game. Many players already wear broadcast microphones to capture the sounds and conversations of the game. There could also be more cameras and microphones embedded on the pitch itself, such as: BaseCam. (In cricket they have that Blunt microphones.)

How much more interesting would a matchup between former teammates like Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper be if the slugger came to the plate and barked that Scherzer was too old to be on the floor? Or if the ace had informed Harper, it would still make him look silly at 59 Satchel Paige did it to opposing batsmen during his late return to the mound?

In my humble opinion, baseball has always been America’s greatest game. I applaud MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s willingness to defy the pundits’ shrapnel last season and make significant changes in a sport steeped in tradition, because we needed it. Bad. But now that baseball is back on view, it’s time to take a look at the past and make every moment on the ball field even more important. By working together, Major League players can restore the sport to its former glory and ensure it regains its prominent place in the American imagination — as long as they are also willing to occasionally tear each other down.

Rafi Kohan (@rafi_kohan) has written extensively on the economics, culture and psychology of sport. Most recently, he is the author of Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage.

The Times is committed to publishing a variety of letters To the editor. We would love to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some Tips. And here is our email:

Follow the New York Times Opinion section Facebook, Instagram, Tick ​​tock, Whatsapp, X And subjects.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button