Five ways baseball has changed since Ken Griffey Jr.’s prime

Tony Wagner Jan 6, 2016

Five ways baseball has changed since Ken Griffey Jr.’s prime

Tony Wagner Jan 6, 2016

Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. and catcher Mike Piazza were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Wednesday evening, beating out Barry Bonds and Rodger Clemens to get the 75 percent of ballots required for induction.

Griffey just retired in 2010, Piazza in 2007, but they and other eligible players hit their prime in the ’90s. How has the game changed since then?

A more diverse, competitive league

Baseball has become more than just America’s Favorite Pastime in the past two decades, said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and author of several books about the game.

The percentage of white players in the MLB in 2014 more or less matches the U.S. population, according to Pew Research, and the portion of black players has declined since the ’90s, while the share of Asian and Hispanic players has grown. Most of these players — and about a quarter of the league in 2014 — are from outside the U.S.

A larger talent pool across the board raises the bar for players entering the MLB, Zimbalist says. 

A larger, more centralized MLB

The game is bigger than it was during Griffey and Piazza’s rookie years, with new divisions, four more teams and more inter-league play than ever before. That adds up to about 100 more players any given season, new rivalries and diminished emphasis on the National and American leagues, says Alex Remington, a baseball blogger who writes for Fangraphs and edits the Braves Journal.

“The importance of the leagues is the lowest it’s ever been,” he said. “When Griffey and Piazza came into baseball, I think many fans might have been fans of their team, then fans of their league, then fans of the sport. I think that middle step is a great deal weaker than ever before.”

The steroid furor has settled down

The ’90s are widely remembered as the “Steroid Era.” Remington calls that something of a misnomer, because while steroids were more prominent, performance-enhancing drugs have been widely used for decades, and he says the label denigrates players’ accomplishments.

“We didn’t call the ’80s the Cocaine Era, even though it very frankly had just as much of a destructive an effect on sports in general as steroids could have possibly had in the ’90s,” he said. “But we’ve sort of managed to see past that with a little bit of time.”

Testing and strict violations have helped, though Remington guesses use of performance-enhancing drugs is at a “historic norm.”

For what it’s worth, Griffey is often cited as the exception to the ubiquitous steroid use in the ’90s, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Bigger ratings and profits

The MLB had a very good 2015, with a record-breaking $9.5 billion in revenue. The boost is thanks in no small part to huge media rights deals, Forbes notes, and the success of the streaming service MLB Advanced Media.

Ratings are on the rise too, with last year’s playoffs attracting 3.74 million viewers, helped along by big-market teams making the playoffs. The LA Times reported that millions more followed along online through the league’s live stat portal. 

Streaming has changed the game

Perhaps the biggest change, at least from a business point of view, is the arrival of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the MLB’s streaming video team. BAM has distinguished itself as the cutting edge of not just sports but streaming entertainment in general.

That’s important as more people cut the cord. Live sports are still a draw, but even that attraction is waning, and BAM has since helped power other leagues’ digital business, as well as build HBO Now.

“As an Atlanta Braves fan who lives in Washington DC, the ability to get an subscription has been fantastic,” Remington said. “I think in many ways its a remarkable time to be a fan.”

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