Major League Baseball has a Fourth Wall Problem

My editors will not like this, but I am going to use “I” here. I should not use “I.” In doing so, I’m allowing you, the reader, to observe a specific point of view from which this is written. It allows you, the reader, into my world a little bit, and acknowledges that I, the author, have certain biases due to the rules of nature and nurture (biases which I strive to overcome when offering analysis). It also allows, in a sense, for the thought to enter your head that I physically sat down and wrote this, and that it wasn’t something that magically appeared for your entertainment. In that capacity, it’s the writer’s job to hide from the reader how the sausage is made, so to speak. My role is to write, yours is to enjoy (or not) the finished product. By the time you read this, my job will be done. My acknowledgement that I am writing this to you knocks down the so-called “fourth wall“, the imaginary boundary between a performer (or writer, in this case) and his or her audience. In film and literature terminology, we live in a largely meta and postmodern society, which puts the fourth wall in an interesting (and compromising) place. Regarding baseball, observing the role of the fourth wall can go a long way in diagnosing some (but not all) of the problems facing the game today. Which is to say: Major League Baseball has a fourth wall problem.

For the vast majority of performance art history, the fourth wall was integral to production: create the illusion that the art is its own reality, not a construct that exists within a much broader reality. Recently though, the fourth wall has begun to buckle under its own construction. The idea that art can be aware of itself is now common. Television shows like “The Office” or “Trailer Park Boys” serve as perfect exemplars of this phenomenon. In both of those shows, the show acknowledges itself. Actors often talk directly to the camera, instead of pretending the camera is not there. Cameras and crews are part of the production. Specifically, one tertiary subplot in “The Office” presented a scene where Pam plotted revenge on a warehouse worker after he ruined a painting of hers, and she spray-painted his truck. When the warehouse worker went after her, the show’s sound guy intervened and hit the attacker with the bar of his microphone. Subsequently, the camera guy was fired for intervening with the show. Think about how unique that is to television: The plot of the show was about a camera guy being fired from the show for compromising the action of the show. That is some meta entertainment, folks. In shows like this, there often is no laugh-track telling the audience where the jokes are, and the use of the cameras as active participants creates a fascinating relationship between performer and audience. In a way, it makes an audience member feel as if they’re in on the joke, as opposed to being relegated to an outside observer’s role. This dynamic is where baseball is getting it wrong, and other sports are light years ahead.

When one goes to a baseball game, there is some interaction between performer and audience. Fans get to keep foul balls and home runs; in between innings when the outfielders play catch to stay loose, the outfielders casually toss the ball into the stands. Same goes for when the final out for each half-inning is recorded. But all of those things occur outside the action of play. While the game is going on, players rarely interact with each other or their audience. Most player interactions take place between a first-baseman and a runner, when just a few words are muttered between the two after the hitter reaches first. Other than that, the narrative baseball has created with all its “unofficial rules” and mandated professionalism creates an environment which encourages players to act rather bland and unemotional while playing.

Think of all the “unofficial rules” in baseball that are consistently points of debate. A player cannot hang around the batter’s box too long to watch his home run sail into the stands, nor can he take too long to round the bases after said home run (unless the player is Bartolo Colon).

Take that a step further, however. Those criticisms are about disrespecting the opposition. How dare you have fun when doing something good at the expense of somebody else. There is no fun to be had while playing America’s Pastime. It is wrong to enjoy oneself while existing in life’s playground. Listen to all of that rhetoric. But there’s an aspect that nobody bothers mentioning: how the fans feel about it. It’s all player-on-player criticism… it’s baseball players cannibalizing the actions of their peers. You’d think these games might have been played in an empty park, and the game existed for only the players. In this way, baseball still fancies itself as part of a pre-meta world. The game is not aware of itself, and takes itself too seriously. The imaginary boundary between the fan in the seats and baseball player still exists. Baseball is its own reality.

Conversely, when Steph Curry hits a three or when Cam Newton scores a touchdown, their celebrations make the observers feel like their presence is felt; like the performers in the game are aware of the game, and of people are watching. And the experience should be fun.

Sometimes breaking the fourth wall is not a good thing. During the “Malice at the Palace” – when the player formerly known as Ron Artest went into the stands and punched a fan, the fourth wall was violently disassembled.

The most famous breaking of the fourth wall in baseball (good or bad) was the events surrounding Steve Bartman; Bartman did what every fan’s first reaction would be: to go after, and try to catch, the foul ball that was headed right for him. Needless to say, Moises Alou was not pleased with this performer/audience interaction. In baseball, the fan takes a different role while in attendance than fans at other sporting evnets. Baseball games aren’t fun in the way other sports are. Fielders rarely celebrate outs, and no matter what the hitter does, when his job is done he goes back into the hidden confines on the dugout. If a player does something extraordinarily well, he is allowed to come out of the dugout and tip his cap to the crowd for the hallowed “curtain call”… but he must not have too much fun with it.

In basketball, football, hockey, and soccer, it is commonplace for players to celebrate achievements, and to acknowledge the presence of the crowd. Sometimes the players get carried away, take it too far, or just do not display common sense when deciphering when to celebrate (like when Running Back X celebrates a first down with the zeal of a game-winning touchdown while his team is losing by thirty). That stuff can go away. But for the most part, those celebrations are taken as a part of the game now. Players in those sports routinely can be observed urging their home crowd to get louder. In baseball, those actions are reserved for only the most extreme circumstances, like the final out of a World Series. A byproduct of this is that it’s never felt more engaging, for better or worse, to be an audience member of a football or basketball game, but never less engaging to be a baseball fan.

This takes form in a marketing aspect, as well. Football players are the most materialistically covered while playing – they are literally covered from head to toe – but most sports fans could recognize Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and so on. NBA players wear the most minimalistic uniforms, and that only helps the general population recognize LeBron James, Steph Curry, and the other stars basketball has to offer. As it pertains to Major League Baseball, perhaps Bryce Harper is the only exception. People know who he is, but in part because of the “bad” press he gets. In the baseball world, Harper seemingly gets reprimanded for how recognizable he is.

Ask yourself: Who would be more recognizable to the average sports fan, Russell Wilson or Mike Trout? Odell Beckham Jr. or David Price? Dirk Nowitzki or Josh Donaldson? Certainly there are recognizable MLB stars, but even those who are recognizable fall in line behind NBA and NFL players in terms of marketability. On some level, MLB has to be to blame for not putting its stars in position to have their faces in the collective consciousness of society. Baseball is clearly third amongst sports leagues in this area, behind the NFL and NBA, and closer to fourth place (whether that be hockey, soccer, or even NASCAR in some areas of America) than it is to competing with those top two entities. That’s a pretty big fall from grace for “America’s Pastime.”

The nature of baseball doesn’t exactly lend itself all that well to breaking the fourth wall. The game itself is a repetition of batter versus pitcher, and players do not coexist in the same space the way they do in other sports, but that is not to say that baseball is hopeless in this aspect. The fact of the matter remains that while players keep censoring other players for being too emotional on the field, that can manifest itself into a fan-base; fans follow suit, and feel as if they should be more subdued in their celebrations while attending games. Baseball crowds are somewhere above golf audiences, but below those of most other sports. Rarely does an announcer talk about a baseball crowd being “raucous” or “crazed” (in a good way) like they do about crowds of basketball, football, hockey, soccer, or even NASCAR, and the root of this problem is that baseball has yet to break the fourth wall. It’s time, Mr. Manfred, to at least make an effort, on behalf of baseball, to tear down the fourth wall.

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