After his booming home runs in the Minor Leagues and during the recent Spring Training, Bryant’s 0-for-4 performance at the plate (including three strikeouts) may have seemed an anti-climax, but that didn’t deter any of the MLB news outlets.
From MLB.com onwards, Bryant’s debut was the headline story and a couple of decent bits of fielding at third base – good, but nothing particularly special at the Major League level – were latched onto with gusto in lauding a new star.
You could try to argue that the Cubs’ cynical decision not to promote Bryant for Opening Day was a marketing masterstroke; a perfect example of making people wait and building up anticipation.
That would be wrong. In fact, all the hubbub just goes to prove exactly why the Cubs’ actions were a great shame for the sport.
If you missed the back story, it all came down to the way in which Major League teams are able to keep a player under contract for six full seasons when they start their career in the Big Leagues. By delaying Bryant’s debut by 11 days, the Cubs ensured that he would not build up enough days on their roster to gain a full season of credit this year. The result is that instead of potentially becoming a free agent at the end of the 2020 season, Bryant will now not be eligible for free agency until the end of the 2021 season.
From a business standpoint the Cubs’ decision was understandable. The small number of games he has missed will not affect their 2015 season to any significant extent and the value of getting an extra year from a player of Bryant’s calibre is potentially huge. They have put forward their arguments as to why it was a genuine baseball decision and could probably fund a team of sharp lawyers to state a strong legal case if needed, despite everyone knowing full well that the position is completely false.
However, as part of agreeing to the cut-off point at which a full-season cannot be claimed, the Players Association are adamant that there is an element of fairness that needs to be applied. Deliberately holding down a player who clearly should have been on the roster just to stop them accruing service time is a blatant act of bad faith.
As a committed baseball fan I can find many things that demonstrate the sport is in rude health, but concerns have been raised in the States that the sport’s standing is slipping among the casual ranks. The new ‘pace of play’ modifications introduced this season, designed to tackle the increasing length of games, were an acknowledgement of this.
Making changes to stop games drifting along is a positive step, but any such modifications are only going to have marginal benefits. When it comes to getting more people to take an interest, we should remember that sport is above all else a source of entertainment and entertainment is driven by stars.
It’s already recognised that MLB needs to do more to market its stars in a way that the NFL and NBA have done so successfully. Let more people know how great it is to watch Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen making amazing catches in the outfield, Giancarlo Stanton launching mammoth home runs or Matt Harvey carving up Major League lineups and interest will take hold. The spike in ratings and at the turnstiles for Harvey’s home season debut for the Mets on Thursday is testament to the star talent being there and having an impact.
The 2015 MLB season opened up at Wrigley Field as the Cubs hosted the Cardinals in a marquee U.S. national TV match-up on ESPN. Instead of potentially seeing Kris Bryant send a stunning walk-off home run into the stands in a prime-time debut and immediately announcing himself to a national audience on every sports news outlet, his only impact was in the ESPN announcers telling us what an exciting talent he is and explaining why we weren’t able to enjoy that talent there and then.
The Cubs held down Bryant because it made business sense and they will receive no penalty as a result. If new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is serious about getting more youngsters in America excited about baseball once again that needs to change so it doesn’t happen again.
The MLB Commissioner has an overriding power that allows him to take action in the best interests of baseball. A situation where it benefits a team to hold down a young potential star for even a few days is clearly not in the best interests of baseball and needs to be rectified.