It was a work of genius.
Will Ferrell's barnstorming tour through the Cactus League on Thursday was a Public Relations masterstroke. This isn't the first time a celebrity has pretended to play big league ball. Tom Selleck, Kevin Costner, Garth Brooks, Billy Crystal, and musician Bruce Hornsby have played in spring training games at one time or another. Former Good Morning America host David Hartman took part in Detroit Tigers spring training in 1985. But this was a publicity stunt on an even grander scale, and it is another attempt to market baseball to the next generation of fans.
The Will Ferrell games were fundraisers. All of his game used gear will be auctioned off and the proceeds will go to Stand up to Cancer and Cancer for College. But it was also a multimedia event. He started the day on the Mike and Mike show on ESPN Radio. He talked to MLB network throughout the day. The whole event will be commemorated in a special on HBO produced by Funny or Die.
Rob Manfred took the reins of MLB in January, and since then he's worked to position baseball for the middle of the 21st Century. It started with the pace of play rules. They're designed to hook the child who is still trying to settle on his or her favorite sport. There is a legitimate concern that in this day and age, a baseball game would seem positively glacial when compared to the faster pace of football or basketball.
Will Ferrell is part of that marketing push. To use a phrase that was coined by Politico, Will Ferrell the Baseball Player "won the morning." It also "won the midday, the afternoon, the evening, and the morning after." Baseball had an absolutely dynamite story that slotted nicely into the Sports Doldrums that exist between the end of the Super Bowl and the beginning of the NCAA tournament.
Speaking as a media person, there's no better way to curry favor with the media than to provide news on slow news days. Former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was a master at this. Before he was Governor, he used to schedule news conferences on Sunday afternoon. TV stations and radio stations would cover Quinn's media availabilities because there was nothing else to do. TV newscasts needed tape. Radio newscasts needed sound. A Sunday afternoon newser provided both. Likewise, Will Ferrell could get everyone talking about baseball because we're in a sports desert until Selection Sunday.
It also breaks through the noise in a way that other celebrity spring training appearances can't. Kevin Costner, Billy Crystal, and Garth Brooks were rich guys going through a Male Menopause phase. It was fun if you were a fan or the entertainers or the teams involved,. Ferrell put on a show, and he did it in such a way that non-baseball fans could understand.
"Hey, it's Ricky Bobby/Ron Burgundy/Frank the Tank and he's playing baseball! This I gotta see!"
By and large, everyone was in on the joke. It did draw the ire of John Madden, who said it made a mockery of the players who were working to win a position on the big league club. But the critical remarks were very few and far between.
The actual value of spring training has been the subject of debate for decades. It made sense when players had jobs in the offseason and required a period of conditioning to get them ready for the season. That time has long since passed, and now Spring Training is nothing more than an additional month for baseball to monetize its product.
Will Ferrell is part of that. He puts butts in the seats, he puts eyeballs in the screen, and he allowed baseball to break through in a noisy media environment.
I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I would wager that he helped create a few new baseball fans along the way.