We’re used to hearing from professional athletes in certain settings. Namely, before, after and between games. But during the game? That’s mostly unheard of.
We’re also used to another thing: Major League Baseball seemingly doing everything in its power to drive baseball to obscurity. When Rob Manfred and Co. try to innovate, it’s usually some horrendous idea that’s immediately met with outrage. And baseball has never been nearly as good as, say, the NBA, in marketing its stars — in fact, it’s been downright awful.
But this week, both of those familiar tropes have been challenged, with the return of mic’d up players during spring training. This isn’t your typical mic’d up athlete segment, like in the NFL where a player wears a mic at all times and they chop up the best moments into a montage of sorts. This is live, in real-time, banter from the players at the plate or in the field, chatting it up with commentators and sometimes other teammates or opponents.
MLB has experimented with the format several times in recent years. Remember when, during 2018 spring training, Mookie Betts exclaimed, “I ain’t getting this one, boys!” as he chased down a rope into the outfield? I absolutely loved it — and that’s saying something, because I hate the Red Sox.
🔊⬆️: "I ain't getting this one, boys" 😂 pic.twitter.com/SzmuWKbEi0
— ESPN (@espn) March 27, 2018
That moment — and a couple others from that year’s spring training — brought a rare spotlight to baseball’s stars. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that baseball had more personality and character in March than it did at any point in the regular season.
The mic’d up highlights were even better (and from a business standpoint, more viral) in last year’s All-Star game. Freddie Freeman pleading with Justin Verlander to groove a meatball, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger admiring each other’s phenomenal seasons, a trio of Astros poking fun at each other.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) July 10, 2019
Okay, so maybe that last one didn’t age so well. But what’s so special about these moments is that we get to see the players as human. Batters guessing about what pitch is next, outfielders admiring their cutoff throws, first basemen wondering if their foot was still on the bag.
This is the type of stuff that young Little Leaguers can watch and be reminded that the pros aren’t that different from themselves. And for the kids not in baseball, it might just inspire them to ask their parents to sign up for Little League next year.
We often forget that these guys we see on a TV screen or from the stands are real, imperfect human beings. They get lonely in the outfield (shout out Charlie Blackmon’s honesty), misplay fly balls and strike out on pitches right down the middle. For the MLB, which has always struggled to paint their stars as charismatic, lovable human beings, throwing microphones on their jerseys might just be the perfect solution.
Now of course, it’s not perfect. For one, Pete Alonso dropped an f-bomb on live TV on Wednesday. That’s not a great look for ESPN in the moment. However, the general reaction to Alonso’s segment was overwhelmingly positive.
The bigger issue is whether it’s a harmful distraction. Spring training and All-Star games are one thing, regular season and postseason is another. I certainly don’t expect anybody to be mic’d up in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series anytime soon. But in a 162-game regular season? I see absolutely no issue with mic’ing up players in the middle of games.
Only people who don’t understand baseball will tell you that all the fielders do is stand around for three hours. But, as Blackmon humorously acknowledged, there is inevitably a lot of down time. Does having a microphone and earpiece in one ear really distract enough to prevent an outfielder from making a play? I don’t think so.
I will say that mic’d up plate appearances would be significantly tougher to introduce in the regular season. It’s not realistic to expect the pure gold we got from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on Monday, highlighted by Rizzo jokingly asking someone to “bang for him” on a trash can. I mean, one of the best players in baseball taking shots at the Astros, mid at-bat, on live television? That’s simply incredible entertainment.
— MLB (@MLB) March 2, 2020
As much as Rizzo and Bryant absolutely knocked it out of the park, I understand the need to zone out all distractions while in the batter’s box. Maintaining a conversation with the commentators in one moment and hitting a 100 mile-per-hour heater in the next moment probably isn’t going to work.
But it’s absolutely feasible to have mic’d up fielders, and who knows? If a game is a complete blowout and you get a pressure-free, mostly meaningless at-bat late in the game? I think that’s most certainly doable. Bryant himself said after Monday’s mic’d up session that it was “one of the most fun games I’ve ever played,” but he did question its practicality in meaningful games.
“Probably not,” Bryant said, when asked if it could work in the regular season. “I’m just thinking of someone on the infield doing it and they boot a ball and you lose the game. Imagine that. … As much as it is awesome and the fans would love it, I don’t think it would work.”
Agree to disagree, Mr. Bryant. Of course, it would have to completely be voluntary, and I’m sure some players would object. The fear that it completely takes players out of the game and could result in the sort of catastrophe that Bryant is talking about, is a reasonable reaction to something which, at the moment at least, is so foreign — but it doesn’t have to be.
It seems each day, the future of baseball gets a little murkier. Mic’d up stars is one of the few truly exciting innovations to come out of baseball in the last few years. For my sake, and for baseball’s sake, I really hope we get to hear more of it soon.