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Do baseball fans care more about long lines than long games?

The focus on on-field matters may be missing what really keeps baseball fans from engaging with the sport

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Last week, Ken Rosenthal reported on the latest set of proposed changes focused on pace of play, roster construction, strategies for increasing action in games, and suggestions to discourage teams from tanking. Rosenthal’s article got a lot of attention because these proposals provide a basis for the kinds of debates baseball fans love, especially during a slow hot-stove season. (You can read Adam Peterson’s take here.)

Perhaps before getting too caught up in the question of adding the designated hitter to the National League, MLB should consider some basic access issues fans face, whether those barriers be physical, financial, or cultural. After all, when fans can’t watch games, they really don’t care about the size of major league rosters.

Prior to Rosenthal’s high profile report, the Washington Nationals revealed a more low-key change that will affect fans: In 2019, the Nationals would begin banning backpacks. While the Nationals cited security concerns, fans complained that the ban would make it even harder for them, especially parents with small children, to attend games.

After Rosenthal’s article and the Nats’ announcement, Eireann Dolan and her husband, Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ closer, took to Twitter and began a conversation with fans about what’s working and not working in baseball. “I recently had a conversation with a Nats fan about keeping fans’ voices in the ongoing conversation about the direction fo baseball,” Dolan wrote. “So I want to know: If fans had a seat at the table, would would you ask for it improve your game experience as a fan? And what keeps you a fan?”

What followed was a Twitter conversation that merits attention. Dolan’s tweet had 464 likes and 608 comments. Here is are some highlights of the conversation:

In fairness, not all of these issues are equal. For example, being unable to afford a ticket or transportation or feeling unwelcome at a ballpark is a problem of a different order than, say, wanting shorter food lines. But these are the kinds of issues that concern fans. (By the way, MLB, many women tweeted with Dolan and Doolittle during this thread. You need to take their concerns seriously.)

Dolan and Doolittle interacted throughout, and it was fascinating to see how those intimately involved with the game are equally affected by many of the problems facing fans. For example, Dolan cannot watch her husband’s games on TV without a cable subscription, even though they live close to Nationals Park; she’s frustrated by access issues for fans; she struggles with sensory processing and can feel overwhelmed at some ballparks; she couldn’t buy her husband’s All-star jersey in a women’s size. Doolittle wondered how robo-umps would affect “the art of pitching,” and he explained how he experiences long commercial breaks (he gets more warm-up throws). He also confessed that he can’t stay up to watch the end of many games because they’re just too late and described the exhaustion that comes with cross-country travel.

As the conversation wound down, Doolittle remarked: “The replies to this remind me that pace of game and defensive shifts aren’t the existential threats to baseball we need to be focusing on. Growing the game means making it more accessible and affordable while creating a space where fans feel included and connected to the product.”

I’ve thought a lot about Doolittle’s tweet, but Ken Rosenthal’s high-profile piece brought home for me the disparities between fans who lack basic access to the game, which affects their ability to connect to baseball, and writers (and a commissioner) who take access for granted and focus on their concerns rather than those of fans.