When I was a kid, I used to dread the New York Yankees’ West Coast road trips. For 10 days at a time, the team I otherwise followed obsessively would exist only as an abstraction, because the games started at 10 p.m., after my bedtime. I couldn’t even catch up the next morning, since the games ended too late for the early edition newspaper.
It no longer seems fair to begrudge the West Coast for poaching Eastern cities’ baseball teams. About 1 in 6 Americans live there, so they can have a little baseball, as a treat. But with the news Tuesday that the San Diego Padres have acquired Juan Soto, the superstar outfielder who led the Washington Nationals to a World Series in 2019, the West Coast has solidified a sleep-depriving grip over the country’s top baseball talent. It is time for the MLB to act.
Soto’s arrival in Petco Park is part of a trend. Of the top 10 hitters in baseball over the past three seasons, measured in wins above replacement (WAR), five are now playing in Southern California: Trea Turner, Freddie Freeman, and Mookie Betts for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Manny Machado and now Soto for the Padres. Eleventh on that list is San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr., who misses the top 10 only because he did not play a full season until last year!
And that doesn’t even get to the real royalty of Southern California baseball talent, over in Anaheim: The two-way hitting-pitching phenom Shohei Ohtani, who won the American League MVP last year and is playing just as well this year, and his teammate Mike Trout, who has suffered a string of injuries but is widely acknowledged as one of the best to ever play the game. He’s still the sport’s 43rd-ranked hitter of all time—at age 30!
Now, you may have heard that baseball is suffering from flagging popularity. Kids don’t play it or watch it like they used to. Many critics say the game’s slow pace is out of step with the times. But a more acute and obvious problem is that the sport has few players with national name recognition.
Could it be because the game’s best players are all playing in the middle of the night?
Late-night baseball lovers like to point to Nielsen data from, who else, television networks, who drive much late-night sports scheduling. The networks say 12-to-17–year-olds are more likely to be watching after 11 p.m. than before. But when ESPN’s senior VP of research was asked about 10 p.m. start times a few years ago, he said, “you’re probably pushing the envelope a little far.”
Defenders of the SoCal slugging trust will say that baseball fans follow their team first and the sport a distant second. They rarely watch high-profile matchups of other squads up to and including the World Series, which has lately drawn fewer viewers than the NBA Finals. (Relatedly, MLB playoff games are also played in the middle of the damn night, a common complaint of parents.) So what does it matter if the game’s stars all duke it out in one time zone?
That has historically been the baseball way, in part because allegiance to even one team demands an astounding amount of time. But it’s also because for years, fans could only plausibly catch two or three out-of-market games a week.
This isn’t the ’90s anymore. Anyone can watch anything online that they want, including through the MLB’s vaunted MLBTV product that gives you radio or television access to every game in the season for a song. When Odell Beckham Jr. makes a one-handed catch on some Sunday in November, the play goes viral instantly. Mike Trout makes a great catch at 12:15 a.m. Eastern? Maybe I’ll see it over coffee in the morning.
This state of affairs—a cycle of fading star power and declining interest—is not inevitable. Which is why I’m asking that Joe Biden issue an executive order to move the Dodgers back to Broo—
Just kidding. But it doesn’t have to be this way. These stacked West Coast teams can simply play their games a bit earlier in the day. And the television networks can show them nationwide. Kids will watch more baseball, and frankly, so will I.
I’m sure that the Dodgers and Angels’ freeway rivalry is thrilling, and it’s exciting that the Dodgers and Padres are division rivals that play 19 games a year. But I wouldn’t know, because the games are too late to watch. And while I have, occasionally, dialed up a West Coast broadcast in a fit of insomnia, baseball’s real problem isn’t with me; it’s with 7-year-olds. They deserve to watch the best players in the game. That means more afternoon baseball in Southern California.