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Play Loud and Carry a Big Stick

The new faces of MLB are brash and fun—just what the league needs. Can they pull more fans into the game or will they get snuffed out by debates over on-field manners?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve spent much time watching the MLB playoffs, you’ve probably been bombarded with an ad that starts with a scene straight out of Ken Burns’s Baseball: plaintive strings, black-and-white footage of vintage ballparks, a Rockwellian kid sitting in the stands and staring at his heroes, and a narrator intoning, “They say baseball isn’t like it used to be.” The first time you see it—the first of dozens, in all likelihood—it looks like it’s going to be baseball business as usual, the latest example of a sport with a rich tradition drawing on its glory days rather than promoting its present.

Then the script subverts that expectation. The strings segue into “Limonada Coco (Remix),” a 2017 collaboration between Dominican musicians Musicólogo the Libro and Lápiz Conciente. A montage of modern players superimposed on the grainy footage blow fastballs by the black-and-white players or take the old-timers’ offerings deep. The vivid-looking youngsters, including representatives from every team in the 2019 playoff field, flip their bats, pound their chests, and dance in celebration. As the highlight reel rolls, a series of narrators co-opt the age-old complaint about baseball being different, presenting change as a positive development. “They’re right,” says Aaron Judge, who passes the voice-over baton to Jack Flaherty, Cody Bellinger, and Alex Bregman in the 30-second TV spot. “It’s faster, younger, harder. The kids are here. And we play loud.”

That last sentence, delivered by Bregman, is the tagline of MLB’s 2019 postseason campaign. The ubiquitous promo attached to the tagline is a spiritual sequel to the league’s 2018 postseason campaign, “Let the Kids Play,” which featured a similar selection of young stars flouting baseball’s stodgy, unwritten rules against supposedly excessive displays of emotion. That promo culminated in a cameo by the Kid, Ken Griffey Jr., whose own ebullient play and distinctive style touched off a long-running, racially charged debate about backward caps, untucked shirts, and “respecting the game.”

The two campaigns, which debuted in back-to-back Octobers, share a common theme, which Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president of marketing, sums up as “showcasing our young, diverse superstar players and the emotion [and] excitement that they bring to the field on a day-in-and-day-out basis.” With “Let the Kids Play,” McHugh says, “I think we really came out and made a bit of a statement.” For the follow-up, she continues, “We wanted it to live within the umbrella of ‘Let the Kids Play,’ but … we wanted to change it up a bit, too, just because campaigns can tend to get a little tired if you’re just sort of hearing the same thing.”

“Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud” hit the web and the airwaves amid ongoing concerns about baseball’s lack of star power compared with other sports. Together, they epitomize MLB’s new approach to tackling that problem. But by signaling a shift in the league’s preferred on-field behavior, they’ve drawn attention to a fault line in players’ beliefs about baseball etiquette that has caused quakes on multiple occasions in the weeks since the “We Play Loud” promo appeared. MLB’s marketing department may want to play up the personalities of Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, and other exuberant stars, but it takes more than a tagline to change hidebound baseball.

Debates about why baseball’s best talents have had trouble breaking through as celebrities often lay blame at the doorstep of either the players or the league, although it’s simplistic to say it’s one or the other. When MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked last July why the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, wasn’t better known on a national level, he blamed Trout for not promoting himself. “Mike has made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time,” Manfred said. “I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”

Manfred’s message, which seemed to absolve MLB of responsibility for the visibility of baseball’s stars, rankled some players. “I don’t think MLB should leave it to the players to market themselves through other avenues,” Justin Verlander said in August 2018. “[Manfred’s] saying that Mike Trout doesn’t do a good enough job marketing, but it’s not on Mike Trout. It’s on Major League Baseball.”

“MLB doesn’t do a good job of marketing its players” has become a familiar refrain, but it’s possible that neither the players nor MLB’s marketing arm is primarily responsible for the absence of superstars in the sport. It may be a matter beyond either party’s control, a reality dictated by the structure of the sport and its standing in the crowded entertainment firmament of the internet age.

Baseball’s regional TV ratings remain strong, with all but a handful of regional sports networks that air MLB games taking the top spot in prime time in their local cable market, but the sport’s RSN-centric broadcast structure prevents players from becoming national figures; many fans follow their own team but don’t keep a close eye on the other 29. Baseball’s 162-game season doesn’t leave a lot of downtime for players to pursue promotional opportunities. And compared with contests in basketball and football, baseball games don’t mold themselves around their top talents. Tom Brady gets the ball on every offensive Patriots play, and the Lakers can give the ball to LeBron James whenever they need a buzzer-beating basket, but Trout can come to the plate only when the batting order says so. That rigid lineup limits baseball’s ability to manufacture star-making moments. MLB’s coin-flip playoffs also make it less likely for the best teams to advance and form fame-boosting dynasties. None of those obstacles would melt away with the right tagline. It’s difficult to create a superstar through marketing alone.

Regardless of the reasons for the sport’s star outage, baseball writers have long lamented the loss of a “face of baseball” that the average person would recognize. Active MLB players consistently record low Q Scores and name-recognition figures in national surveys, and no MLB player appeared on the 2017 or 2018 incarnations of ESPN’s “World Fame 100,” a ranking of athletes that purports to quantify fame via endorsements, social media followers, and internet search popularity. Bryce Harper, fresh off his extended, high-profile free agency, ended MLB’s shutout when he made the latest edition this March, but he barely qualified, coming in at no. 99 and sporting the list’s fifth-smallest social following.

No MLB-produced promo would vault players onto that list on its own, but the league is trying to address the perceived deficiency in its former marketing efforts by putting the spotlight on players. “For the last year and a half or so, two seasons now, it is definitely a major priority and effort from our new marketing team,” McHugh says. “There’s a lot of focus being put on that.”

McHugh, who was elevated to her current position in April 2018, leads that reorganized and refocused group, which an MLB spokesman says has emphasized promoting players via social media and other digital content, expanding the sport’s global audience, connecting with younger fans, and setting up special events such as Food Fest, the Field of Dreams game (granted, not exactly catnip for Gen Z), and MLB games in Mexico, Japan, and London. “We’re a very eager and excited group that’s constantly looking for new ideas and taking some current ideas and trying to see how we can evolve them,” McHugh says.

The “Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud” campaigns were designed to augment MLB’s efforts in a few of those areas. “We Play Loud” made its first appearance via an extended, 45-second YouTube video—which includes another player-narrator, Soto, saying, “Es una nueva generación”—on October 1. That rollout allowed McHugh’s team to assess fan sentiment on social media before it aired on TV. It also, she says, furthered the league’s goal of “engaging a casual to new-slash-next-generation fan. … The digital plays well there because that’s where those folks are.” According to MLB, between 70 and 75 percent of the league’s followers on Instagram and YouTube are between 13 and 34 years old, which would make them much younger than the league’s average TV viewer (57 as of 2016).

“We Play Loud” is the product of collaboration between MLB’s marketing team and outside ad agency partners. The marketing group picked out clips of current players from potential playoff teams, and MLB’s internal archivists pulled video from the 1949 World Series, the 1952–55 World Series, and Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, as well as other pre-1950 footage. The outside agency took the lead on the technical aspects of melding the old and the new footage, and MLB’s in-house marketing personnel developed a plan to promulgate the ad, which went through multiple iterations as the regular season wound down and the playoff field became clear.

“We Play Loud” was well received seemingly because it turned MLB’s traditional reliance on nostalgia on its head. One wouldn’t think it could be controversial to suggest that today’s ultra-athletic players are better than players from 60 or more years ago—they are—but the romance of the so-called golden age of baseball still exerts a strong hold on baseball’s aged audience. Last December, free agent reliever Adam Ottavino said, “I would strike Babe Ruth out every time,” but after he signed with the Yankees, he “caught a lot of flak” for the comment and walked back his claim. As a final act of penance, the Yankees asked him to star in a promo that took the opposite approach of “We Play Loud.” In the 45-second spring training spot, Ottavino becomes black-and-white himself, and he serves up homer after homer to the Babe before waking up from the nightmare.

In contrast to the Ottavino ad, “We Play Loud” nods to baseball’s past without genuflecting in front of it. “MLB deserves credit for going down that road, knowing full well that it will inevitably ruffle some feathers among baseball purists,” says Jeff Heckelman, a strategic communications consultant who was MLB’s director of business communications from 2008 to 2015.

The league hasn’t often used its October taglines to assert the preeminence of modern players, as evidenced by the list below of MLB’s annual postseason campaigns dating back to 2006:

2019: We Play Loud
2018: Whole Squad Ready (Migos spot) and Let the Kids Play
2017: This Postseason on MLB
2016: Unstoppable (Unofficial tagline)
2015: THIS
2014: October Writes Itself
2013: We Play for October
2012: Legends Are Born in October
2011: Legends Are Born in October
2010: This Is Beyond Baseball
2009: This Is Beyond Baseball
2008: There’s Only One October (Blogger Campaign)
2007: There’s Only One October (Dane Cook Campaign)
2006: “I Live for This” (Tommy’s Tough Love Campaign)

Some of those slogans burned themselves onto baseball fans’ brains through sheer repetition; on their deathbeds, decades hence, people who watched postseason baseball during the first 15 years of this century will still remember Derek Jeter declaring “I live for this” in 2006, Dane Cook reminding them that “There’s only one October” in 2007, and Fall Out Boy incessantly lighting mups during the 2013 “We Play for October” campaign. Until 2018, though, most of MLB’s postseason promos focused exclusively on the postseason itself and lacked a larger message. While it’s reasonable to promote the product that’s currently on the air, most people who encountered those campaigns were already on board with October baseball, and those ads did little to persuade postseason viewers to watch baseball for the rest of the year. If, as Cook kept telling us, there’s only one October, people will need new reasons to tune in from April through September. “Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud” offer year-round reasons.

The closest recent comp to MLB’s current marketing tack is the “THIS” campaign, which ran throughout the 2015 season. That was the year when writers started calling attention to MLB’s incipient youth movement, which has reached historic proportions in subsequent seasons. “We’re really fortunate that the group that’s coming along is diverse, extraordinarily talented, and really appealing from a personality perspective,” Manfred told me in 2015, adding, “Obviously, we think young players are more appealing to young people.”

The “THIS” campaign carried a powerful message, but its execution wasn’t as kinetic or compelling as “Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud.” In its centerpiece spot, Buck Showalter, who had been among the most vocal critics of Griffey’s cap during the 1990s, announced, “These are the good old days.” But that promo told us so instead of showing us why: It depicted players engaged in routine activities instead of exuberant demonstrations and relied on an almost-60-year-old manager’s testimonial rather than players speaking for themselves. In the latest campaigns, the players are the unquestioned stars. MLB’s marketing team is trying not to squander the gift of an unprecedented wave of charismatic players who are performing at elite levels at early ages and increasingly coming from outside the United States. This year’s Opening Day rosters featured a record-high percentage of international players, and 102 hailed from the Dominican Republic alone, which helps explain the soundtrack (and the presence of Soto) in “We Play Loud.”

At the 2019 All-Star break, MLB maintained its promotional momentum by releasing a trio of ads promoting Trout, Javier Báez, and the Bellinger vs. Christian Yelich MVP Race, which introduced the hashtag #BellivsYeli.

But baseball’s marketing ambitions go beyond well-produced promos on YouTube and TV. In 2017, MLB and the MLBPA jointly launched Players Weekend; in 2018, MVP-to-be Mookie Betts was memorably mic’d up during a spring training game.

This year, McHugh’s department has overseen a new initiative called the player social program, in which MLB’s marketing team provides players with photos, graphics, video, and other custom content via a portal called Greenfly, which is staffed 24/7 to take requests. According to MLB, 468 players who appeared in the majors in 2019 took part in the program. The league says that those who’ve participated in the program have seen a 24 percent uptick in posting relative to 2018, compared with a 9 percent decrease for nonparticipants. MLB also reports that player social program participants have enjoyed 48 percent more follower growth and 52 percent more engagement than they did last year, versus almost flat trends in growth and engagement among nonparticipants. MLB has also relaxed its formerly onerous restrictions on video-sharing. According to video analytics company Pex, MLB issues takedowns on only 7.3 percent of user-uploaded league content, roughly half the rate of the NBA and a third the rate of the NFL.

“We know fans, generally, whether they’re new fans or casual or die-hard fans, really want to hear directly from the players, and we want to be able to help amplify their visibility,” McHugh says, adding, “I think the players are starting to kind of connect the dots that these are sort of all related, and that we are trying to put more of a spotlight on them in the different work that we’re rolling out.”

An MLBPA spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but Jon Einalhori, vice president of marketing for Sosnick Cobbe & Karon Sports—the agency that reps Pete Alonso, Blake Snell, Max Kepler, and others—praised the program, specifically citing the way it’s eased Snell’s #BUMPDAY tradition of posting something on social media on the days he’s scheduled to pitch. “For the last couple years he would either screenshot a photo from Google or ask the team photogs for any stock photos they had,” Einalhori says via email. “Now with the player social program, they have a custom video sizzle reel or Photoshopped graphic waiting.”

On-demand images aren’t going to translate into instant celebrity, but the league and the players appear to be pulling in the same direction more than they were last summer, when Manfred’s comments about Trout incited a war of words. “I think the consolidation of MLB’s assets (the league office, MLBAM, and MLB Network) under Rob Manfred has contributed to greater cooperation and a shared vision internally,” Heckelman says over email. “I also think it’s fair to say that everyone involved in the game is tired of hearing about its supposed problems, so I think people are more inclined to help than they may have been in the past.”

Those efforts have paid dividends, but they’ve also inadvertently sent mixed messages. By choosing to highlight young players’ expressive celebrations as much as their skills, “Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud” ads have created or exposed tensions between MLB’s marketing efforts, the league’s disciplinary rulings, and the players’ approach to policing themselves. In April—not long after MLB produced a direct sequel to “Let the Kids Play” called “Let the Kids Play 2.0”—Pirates pitcher Chris Archer threw at Reds infielder Derek Dietrich (and caused the benches to clear) in what looked like a clear act of retaliation for Dietrich admiring a homer he’d hit against Archer earlier in the game. At 29, Dietrich wasn’t quite a kid, but what he’d done seemed philosophically in line with behavior that the league was advocating through its marketing materials. Yet MLB handed out only a five-game, single-start, wrist-slap suspension for Archer’s apparent plunk, which seemed somewhat hypocritical. Would the league let the kids play or not?

Incidents of that nature recurred throughout the regular season, and bad blood bubbled up again only two days after MLB posted “We Play Loud.” In NLDS Game 1, Acuña, the Braves’ 21-year-old outfielder—who’s heavily featured in MLB’s ad—hit a home run off 28-year-old Cardinals closer Carlos Martínez, who objected to Acuña’s euphoric trip around the bases. After the game, Martínez said, “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.” The two continued to feud with words and gestures later in the series, and Flaherty (who turned 24 on Tuesday) hit Acuña with a pitch in Game 5, although he insisted that the pitch wasn’t in reprisal for what he called Acuña’s “antics.”

That confrontation between two players featured in the “We Play Loud” video underscores the persistent divides among players—as well as coaches, fans, and cranky columnists—on what constitutes acceptable behavior on the field. In the NLCS, Soto, another “We Play Loud” star, also ran afoul of the Cardinals, who objected to his unorthodox pitch-taking routine, which features a forward shuffle, a glare, and a crotch-grab. Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas seemed to mimic the crotch-grab, and Flaherty jawed at Soto, who responded by staring him down and bat-flipping a walk. In Game 2, though, Soto had seemed to dial down the mannerism, possibly in deference to 38-year-old Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who was drafted before Soto turned 2. Clearly, baseball players haven’t reached a consensus when it comes to manners.

Even individual players aren’t completely consistent on this score; Archer, who has also complained about bat flips, was once known for demonstrative strikeout celebrations. Some players seem to age into preferring that athletes play quiet: In June, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley called Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman’s celebration’s “tired,” but as Stroman pointed out, Eckersley was given to similar displays when he was on the mound. What’s more, timing and context can come into play. A gesture that passes muster when performed by a teammate may produce a more strident response when employed by an opponent. “I’m sure, in the moment, if you’re on the other side, that you’re probably not loving it in the moment as much,” McHugh says.

Yet if MLB keeps bestowing publicity upon players who emote in a conspicuous way, and baseball’s online audience keeps eating it up, players will eventually internalize a new norm. The ending of ALCS Game 2 may have been a sign of celebrations to come. In the bottom of the 11th, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa hit a walk-off blast and strolled out of the box, dropping his bat and cupping his ear toward the home dugout as he belatedly broke into a trot. “The adrenaline started pumping like crazy,” Correa said after the game. “I don’t even know what I did. I’ve got to go watch the video. But I know I was so hyped.”

Maybe Correa’s reaction really was spontaneous, or maybe he was mugging for the cameras. Either way, what he saw whenever he watched was a highlight tailor made for “We Play Loud 2.0.”

Notably, no Yankees players complained publicly about the game-ending display, and no vengeance was visited on Correa in Game 3. He’d celebrated something worth celebrating, and both sides simply moved on. One of baseball’s young stars played loud, and nobody told him to turn it down.