MIAMI -- One of the highlights of every All-Star Game is FanFest, the fan-centric exposition that trots out ballplayers present and past, new merchandise and interactive exhibits. This year's edition took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center, and as usual you could find a steady stream of former ballplayers' autographing and glad-handing and the full complement of swag tied to this year's Midsummer Classic (including 2017 All-Star Game fidget spinners).
What was cool about this year's model, however, was the particular emphasis on the basic constituents of the game itself ...
As you can see, "Hit," "Pitch" and "Catch" lead the way.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is of course tasked with nudging baseball's fan demographic toward the younger side. As has been chronicled in the media ad nauseam, high-consumption baseball fans skew older, and millennials/post-millennials have shown demonstrably less enthusiasm for baseball than have older generations.
What gets lost in the hand-wringing is that there's simply much more competition for leisure time these days, and pretty much every avocational pursuit has seen its "market share" winnowed down. In any context, though, baseball needs to lay the substructure for the future -- i.e., that time when baseball's current leading demo begins dying off, or at least sees its purchasing power decline.
To that end, Manfred and MLB have worked toward seeding a love for the game through the very basic and atavistically appealing tasks of throwing, hitting, running and catching. Enthusiasm for these slices of the game, the thinking likely goes, eventually evolves into a love of the way the game itself melds and blends those things in the self-contained unit of the nine-inning game. That thinking -- that long-term bet on the constituent elements of the sport -- was very apparent at FanFest.
In some ways, the battle for the hearts, minds, and -- yes -- wallets for future fans begins or at least is advanced in just such a place. That's a breezy way of saying you could have a lot of fun at this place.
For instance, you of course have batting cages and pitching machines and radar-gunned pitching tunnels for those looking to air it out:
Speaking of which ...
Keep your eye on "Hazier M," who, despite being classified as a kid, already sits in the low 80s.
Also, fans could avail themselves of the kind of instant feedback that Statcast has popularized. At one station, you could take a couple of swings off the tee and get instant data on bat speed, launch angle and so forth:
We're accustomed to seeing our kids test the pitching radar gun at ballparks, but these hitting measurables are a new thing in the public sphere. It's yet another way to modernize those basic baseball tasks, and nice job by MLB getting them out there at FanFest.
Of course, it wasn't all the usual fare of hitting and pitching. There's also fielding ...
You catch the fly ball and hit the cutoff man by putting the ball in the hole that's set up where the relevant infielder would be.
And there's also base-stealing ...
Feet first next time, young man.
As well, you had stations in which these skills were scaled down in order to engage even younger fans:
These things are reliably enjoyable, especially for kids, but it's not entirely unlike what you'll see in the family concourse of any number of major-league ballparks.
What set FanFest aside is a couple of virtual-reality flourishes:
There's the Virtual Home Run Derby, again with Statcast-y metrics to add to the experience. And ...
Yep, with some assistance from Virtual Buster Posey, you can get a taste of what it's like to play the most grueling position in all of baseball.
Yet again, baseball promotes these slices in an interactive and engaging way. Manfred's talked about how youth baseball players tend to become adult baseball consumers. There's an opportunity for growth in that area, particularly with the safety-related decline of youth tackle football. Providing kids with some positive experiences when it comes to these ingredients of the sport in a way that leverages technology when possible is very much a step toward that.
Oh, and you know what else is a baseball skill? This ...
It's important to be able to snare a foul-hit baseball while holding a bundle of life-altering responsibility and/or occasional joy -- i.e., a baby. It's a fake baby in this instance, but dry reps get you ready for the real thing.
For the youth athlete -- and by extension for those future consumers -- baseball can be the most frustrating of sports. Downtime is punctuated by instances of pressurized isolation, and you must necessarily wait until your next time up or the next time a ball is hit to you for your temporary redemption. By focusing on the components of the game and reinforcing the lesson that baseball is a complicated and challenging whole made up of simple and enjoyable parts, you make it reducible.
It's a time-honored way to introduce kids to the game, and MLB is banking on that approach, along with some wireless-age finishes, to bridge generations. That was readily apparent at FanFest.
And, yes, you could also wear and eat stuff.