Acuña has become the poster child for the “Let the Kids Play” movement
The All-Star Game is a culmination of the most talented baseball players in the world, as well as a time to pause and contemplate the current state of the game and its stars. Seeing Ronald Acuña, Jr. amongst the best in Cleveland this week and hearing the admiration for him by some of the greats like Mike Trout and Alex Bregman offered an opportunity to step back and truly appreciate just what Acuña has already accomplished and the type of player and young man that he is. I couldn’t help but think back to when Ken Griffey, Jr. came into the league and showcased his awe-inducing skills at the Home Run Derby with his hat on backwards. Like Acuña, Griffey did it his own way and had such incredible talent that it commanded the respect of his peers. Whereas Griffey was launching homers with a backwards hat on, Acuña was hitting bombs while blowing bubbles.
— Cut4 (@Cut4) July 9, 2019
Watching Vlad Guerrero, Jr. mashing homeruns in the Home Run Derby and winning over the crowd also got me excited for the future of baseball. Guerrero and Acuña might be the most recognizable among a group of very young, budding stars that also includes Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Gleyber Torres, and Ozzie Albies. While each player has distinct talent and personality, they all exude passion and bring boatloads of excitement to the game. Each has already played Major League Baseball at a high level before reaching the age of 22 (Torres and Albies, the eldest of the group at 22, were both All-Stars at age 21).
Perhaps it is the combination of extreme talent, youth, swagger, timing, and playing on an exciting team that is a contender, but Acuña feels different. This is not a knock on any of the other tremendous players mentioned. To the contrary, without this group of budding superstars, Acuña might appear to be just another young talent rather than the leader of a movement. This group of young stars is fascinating to watch. It is so rare to see such incredible talent from 20 and 21-year-olds that we are privileged to watch grow up before our eyes.
Yet Acuña has become the face and embodiment of this “Let the Kids Play” movement. He is blazing a trail for the others. He is showing by example that players should be able to showcase their personalities along with their skills; that acting like you’re having the time of your life playing baseball should be encouraged instead of repudiated; and that you can do all of this while working hard and performing at levels that few have ever reached.
Acuña has always done things his own way, even before making his major league debut. He was reportedly urged to wear his hat straight while coming up through the minors. He wears gold chains while playing, often to the dismay of the “get off my lawn” traditionalists. He has fun and jokes around with his teammates a lot, especially with his best friend and teammate Ozzie Albies. Most of all, though, he plays the game with passion and never takes the game or his talents for granted. Try watching his reaction to hitting a grand slam in the playoffs last year and tell me that he doesn’t appreciate and love what he’s doing. Go ahead:
Ronald Acuña Jr. with the grand slam
He’s the youngest player in postseason history with a grand slam, at 20 years, 293 days old. pic.twitter.com/kLDD9nDAL3
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 8, 2018
Perhaps the best part of this journey that Acuña has taken baseball fans on so far is the fact that he is enjoying the ride with his best friend:
Hoping the relationship with your valentine is as good as Albies and Acuña’s pic.twitter.com/cl3gRA8g0y
— SportsTalkATL.com (@SportsTalkATL) February 14, 2019
We could talk all day about his insane talent and production at such a young age, about how he is seventh in MLB among position players in fWAR (6.6) since the 2018 All-Star Break, or about how he has elevated the Braves to new heights the past two seasons when hitting leadoff. But while his production is a big part of Acuña’s intrigue, how he plays the game is equally a part.
To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that Acuña is better than any of the game’s other young stars or that he will have a better career. Good timing has just allowed Acuña to experience some successes before the others. Acuña already has some hardware — a Rookie of the Year Award — and just appeared in his first All-Star Game. Not only was he the youngest All-Star this season, he was also a starter. Acuña has also already appeared in the playoffs after at times carrying the surprising 2018 Braves to an NL East championship. Not only has he already been to the playoffs, but he became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the playoffs. Acuña’s trend thus far has been to elevate his game and his team to new heights and then excel at those new heights.
Major League Baseball needs Acuña and the “Let the Kids Play” crew. While revenues are high, the average baseball fan is getting older, going from an average age of 52 in 2006 to 57 in 2017. While there are a lot of variables that affect such numbers (and it should be noted that all other major sports have seen an increase in average fan age), MLB knows that it needs to attract younger fans and has made concerted efforts to do so through various programs like the Play Ball initiative.
Acuña and others represent a tremendous opportunity for MLB to shed the image of a bunch of old men hem-hawing about watching homeruns too long or not playing the game the way that they and others before them played the game. It’s a second chance (or third or fourth) that perhaps baseball doesn’t deserve after its repeated failures to make the game more fun and interesting for younger audiences. But there must be a breaking point, and at the end of the day, the baseball owners are savvy business people who already realize that longterm sustainability requires growth in younger demographics.
Hopefully, MLB will learn from the mistakes of its past and market the hell out of these tremendous young phenoms. Acuña and his prodigious brethren have the potential to be international superstars and bring excitement to the sport that hasn’t been seen in some time. I think Acuña himself said it best:
No more talk let the kids play pic.twitter.com/vtf1IcEsTp
— Ronald Acuna Jr (@ronaldacunajr24) October 4, 2018