Baseball is in long-term decline by nearly any metric someone might pick. World Series TV ratings have dropped slowly and steadily since the 1980s. Attendance had been on a downslope for about a decade before the pandemic made attendance a useless metric to sort out fan engagement. Most damningly, and over a longer term, the rate of Americans identifying baseball as their favorite sport was 39 percent in 1948 and had fallen to 9 percent by 2017.
The sports world’s take-industrial complex ensures there is all manner of explanation for why baseball is not doing as well as it once was. The games are too boring, or too long. The same teams populate the pennant races just about every year. The rivalries are contrived for Sunday Night Baseball and not nearly as heated as in the old days. Kids have gravitated to other sports.
Reasonable people can disagree on the cause of the sport’s illness. But over recent years, months, and even days, the prescription for baseball’s problems has come into focus. The sport just needs every team to be like the San Diego Padres, the new, shining examples of everything Major League Baseball could represent if those in charge wanted.
One of baseball’s great scourges is that a large chunk of the league’s ownership and executive teams, at any given time, are not trying to win, instead content to cash revenue-sharing checks while fielding cheap lineups. Teams in smaller media markets have long traded away their best players as they’ve gotten expensive, failed to retain them when they’ve reached free agency, and avoided much participation in that market themselves. In recent seasons, MLB’s middle class has gotten on the same train, and even the megarich Boston Red Sox traded away the game’s second-best player to get their salary commitments under a luxury tax threshold. The president and CEO of the Seattle Mariners resigned after he said out loud what everyone who follows the sport knew already: that he had held top prospects back in the minor leagues to depress their long-term wages. Players have noticed how brazenly clubs are prioritizing profit over winning.*
At first glance, the Padres should fall into that bucket of Scrooges. San Diego is one of the majors’ smallest markets, which in theory should hold down the team’s revenue (though we don’t know it for sure, because MLB teams do not open their books).
But the Friars are a breath of fresh air, at least compared to their peers. In 2018, they signed Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer for eight years and $144 million. A year after that, they signed former Baltimore Orioles (and briefly Los Angeles Dodgers) shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado for 10 years and $300 million, one of the biggest free agent contracts ever. Last winter, they added three starting pitchers whose teams didn’t want to hang onto them, generally for financial reasons: Yu Darvish was a big salary dump from the Chicago Cubs. Joe Musgrove, who’s already thrown a no-hitter this season, was two years from free agency with the rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates. And Blake Snell, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Cy Young Award winner, became available when the Rays decided even his bargain contract (with three years and $39 million left) was too rich for their blood. Thus, the Padres built out a starting rotation.
None of those were the Padres’ most important move, though. In 2016, they acquired a teenaged shortstop prospect from the Chicago White Sox named Fernando Tatis Jr. In the past few years, Tatis morphed into one of the best players in baseball. Rather than wait for him to get expensive and then trade him away, the Padres threw a 14-year, $340 million extension at him in February, guaranteeing he’ll hang around San Diego for the long haul––as opposed to leaving for another team and leaving Padres fans to find a new hero.
Tatis’ blend of skill and style might be the best advertisement baseball has. The 22-year-old was instantly one of the better players in the league when he debuted in 2019––a season he began on the major league roster, as the Padres declined to manipulate his service time to keep him further from free agency. He stayed brilliant in 2020’s shortened season. He’s jumped to another level in 2021 despite a nagging shoulder injury.
By Fangraphs’ adjusted Runs Created stat, since Tatis entered the league, he has hit at a more productive level than any shortstop this century, even ahead of mostly-non-shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Tatis mashes plenty of homers (46 so far, or one every 15 plate appearances or so) and just hits the chocolate out of the ball. This year, the average exit velocity of a ball coming off his bat is about 96 miles per hour, near the top of the league overall and best among shortstops by a mile. The ball crackles when he hits it. You have to put the volume on when he swings, because the audio is part of the experience:
He flips his bat and more or less dances around the bases when he hits dingers, which is fun both because it looks cool and turns him into a heel in opposing stadiums. Here is a video of him hitting a baseball 458 feet. It sounds like a gunshot, and then he takes his time on a leisurely 360-foot stroll toward home plate:
He’s also a capable defender at shortstop. He sometimes makes Superman-like plays that jump off the screen in the way some of Derek Jeter’s plays once did. Like Jeter, the numbers aren’t clear that Tatis is that good a defender, but that’s not my concern. Just look:
Tatis’ brashness carries the added benefit of rubbing the right kind of person the wrong way. For many years, a silly debate has racked the sport over whether it’s OK for players to celebrate their on-field successes or appear to have any fun at all while playing the game. Some believe athletes who enjoy themselves too much should be punished by having a 98-mile-per-hour fastball thrown at their head. Tatis infuriates those people and even prompts opponents to acknowledge that, yes, if someone is this good, he can celebrate how he wants.
“That’s what it is to be a competitor,” Dodgers pitcher, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and very annoying internet poster Trevor Bauer said after Tatis hit a couple of dingers off him and celebrated them exuberantly. “I’m gonna go at you. I’m gonna get you sometimes, and you’re gonna get me sometimes. We can have fun, we can celebrate it while we’re still competing at the highest level.” Bauer posted a YouTube breakdown of Tatis’ celebrations while hitting dingers off him, jokingly criticizing Tatis for being too reserved.
Not that everything between those two is hunky dory. Bauer accused Tatis (understandably, from my perspective) of peeking back at the catcher’s sign before one of those dingers:
“If you need to know what pitch is coming that badly, just ask daddy nicely next time,” Bauer tweeted to Tatis, referring to Tatis’ father, a longtime big league third baseman. “You know I ain’t scared homie.” Tatis responded in kind:
Look at that! A couple of baseball players having good, old-fashioned beef! And using the internet effectively! If Major League Baseball continues to see its players act this way, the league might accidentally attract some younger fans who didn’t get to see Dave Winfield play in person! Tatis has already rejuvenated a once-fun Dodgers rivalry that died out because the Padres weren’t any good. I would like Tatis v. Los Angeles to remain a thing for the next 10 years.
And it’s not just Tatis. Machado gives them another potential Hall of Famer on the same left side of the infield, though he’s off to a slower 2021 start. Hosmer has turned back into a slugger the last two seasons after falling off a cliff his first two years in SoCal. Onetime top prospect Wil Myers, the team’s right fielder, is finally hitting like he was supposed to do a long time ago. To top off the group, 24-year-old center fielder Trent Grisham––who already has a Gold Glove under his belt from last fall––has developed into one of the league’s best hitters. One wonders if he might be the next young Padre to get a mega-extension, albeit one smaller than Tatis’.
That the Padres are this fun does suggest one thing, at least to me, about what is really ailing baseball: It’s not that games are too long. MLB has fallen over itself to shorten games, introducing the worst gimmick since it decided to determine World Series home field advantage via the All-Star Game in the 2000s. It’s moved to start every extra inning with a runner placed on second base, in the hopes that games will end more quickly. While I prefer shorter games, I am much more concerned with the game itself being fun. The average Padres game in the early part of the 2021 season is the longest in baseball, at an average of three hours and 24 minutes. I don’t mind! If Tatis wants to take three minutes to trot the bases, that’s no problem.
That said: The Padres being this much fun does not mean they will ever win anything. They’re currently a tick above .500, which is encouraging given that Tatis has been out of the lineup with his shoulder issues. After a gangbusters shortened regular season in 2020, San Diego let the Dodgers sweep them in the Division Series. The last time the franchise eclipsed .500 in a 162-game season was in 2010. They haven’t won more than 90 games since their successful 1998 pennant run. The team may well fail to become a perpetual pennant contender or first-time World Series champion. The Padres are the oldest of the six big league franchises that have never won it all in their current cities.
But that’s not exactly the point here. Entire swaths of MLB have decided not to compete their hardest to win, deciding that even the chance of contention isn’t worth the financial muscle. It was gross when the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts. It will be gross when the Cubs don’t give a serious run at re-signing Kris Bryant, their star third baseman who was the NL’s 2016 MVP. And it is gross when teams like the Pirates simply make little effort to even give themselves a vague shot at the playoffs.
The Padres have rarely contended. They’ve made the playoffs six times in their history and gotten to the Fall Classic twice, losing those series in a combined nine games. In their small market, it’d be easy for them to not give a real go at spending money to get over the hump, as so many of their miserly competitors do each year. But instead of accepting their fate as a never-was and never-will-be, they’ve invested in a fun, contending team full of players worth watching. If the real joy of sports is in the journey, the new Padres are already a success.
*Correction, April 29, 2021: This article originally misstated that the general manager of the Mariners was fired after saying that he had held top prospects back in the minor leagues to depress their long-term wages. The Mariners executive who said that was Kevin Mather, the team’s president and CEO, not its GM. Mather resigned after the comments emerged; he wasn’t fired.