It’s my first day in the big leagues. So exciting! Been waiting for this since I was a lil’ leaguer. There’s my brand-new locker, shiny new cleats, and hanging there, a crisp, clean uniform—orange and blue, it’s a beaut. I sit down, figuring I deserve to take it all in.
“Hey, man,” someone says. A guy is walking up to me, stepping around the big star in the middle of the room—remember, that’s bad luck—and speaking quietly, looking around to make sure no one is within earshot. “Welcome to Houston,” he says. “We, uh, do things differently around here. You understand?”
“Listen, man,” he whispers. “You hear one bang? Fastball. Two bangs? Offspeed pitch.” He nods toward a 55-gallon garbage can in the corner of the room. “Understand now?”
Fuck. What did I get myself into?
All right, none of this happened. But it should have. I dreamt it up when I was playing MLB The Show 20’s “Road to the Show” mode, where you create your own player and lead him through the minor leagues on the way to, hopefully, a Hall-of-Fame baseball career. And the experience, which has been a part of The Show in some form for over a decade now, is fun as hell. It’s also worth mentioning that The Show is here to fill a void—it’s your best chance at enjoying baseball for the foreseeable future, as the start of the MLB season will most likely be delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak. (MLB The Show 20 will be released on PS4 on Tuesday, March 17, with pre-order early access starting this Friday.)
Not only do you, you know, do all the hitting/fielding/running stuff, but there’s an entire social ecosystem to navigate. It’s a whole thing. “Road to the Show” has you hanging around in the locker room, building relationships with teammates (“Relationship Status: Bros” is an actual, obtainable friendship tier), all of which improves your performance on the diamond.
The way you carry yourself in these conversations makes a difference, too: Act like Giants-era Barry Bonds and you get “Maverick” badges, which boost your attributes when you play rivals. Tell a buddy he played so well he deserves a pack of Big League Chew and a hug from mom, and you obtain “Heart and Soul” perks, which make you hit better when you’re playin’ with your frens.
But you know what the whole thing was missing? Moral ambiguity. If you haven’t heard, baseball, the entire sport, all of it, was upended with its biggest scandal since the steroid era. In November, former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that his team stole signs from opposing teams during the 2017 and 2018 seasons using an intricate camera system—an allegation that a subsequent MLB investigation proved true. (Several other teams were also indicted for sign-stealing.)
My question for the developers of MLB The Show: Why not use all that drama—which, at the very least, got the entire sports world talking about baseball again—to your advantage? For all of the pomp of its “Road to the Show” experience, it’s missing a clear storyline with characters and full-blown cutscenes, something like NBA 2K’s campy-but-great “MyCareer” mode, where its last iteration introduced Coach Idris Elba to the world.
So, here’s a suggestion. By the way, the following would have been admittedly impossible for The Show to pull off, since the game was likely finalized before all the sign-stealing stuff officially came to light. And to be clear, I know The Show would never dare do anything remotely close to what I’m about to propose, which is one step below having a BALCO employee as a playable, steroid-distributing character—but here goes.
You play a naive, bright-eyed rookie during the 2019 season (you can even choose the Astros!), just before MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred blows the lid open on sign-stealing. Your team has the most sophisticated technology in baseball—video monitors, buzzers, and the biggest, best-sounding trash cans in the league—and if you don’t go along with the racket, you’re on the outs. The challenge: Work with the vets and coaches to use it all to your advantage, while keeping quiet. Oh, and if you choose to be a buzzkill about it all, part of “Road to the Show” is the “road to not feeling queasy about the whole killing-the-integrity-of-the-game thing.”
As for the gameplay, MLB the Show 19 already let you figure out what pitch would come next. Let’s blow that feature out. Your PS4 controller has speakers in it, which is how base coaches give directions to you in the game—and is a perfect way to introduce the one-bang, two-bang on the ol’ can system the Astros invented. Or, you can try to interpret controller vibrations instead, paying homage to Jose Altuve’s alleged buzzer antics. It would all add a little more drama to every at-bat, having to receive messages from your coaches in real time, while making sure the opposing dugout isn’t onto you.
At the end of this spin on “Road to the Show,” a dude on your team blows the whistle on the whole operation—it’s the one you’d least expect, maybe even the mascot—and you have to spend your final hours in the game explaining to local beat journalists why you disrespected your country’s beloved pastime.
When you get there, having to choose between bad and less-bad canned apologies, here’s a cheat for you: Just don’t do what the real-life Astros did.