Strike Three: Baseball Is Dead
In the 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams, a voice is telling Kevin Costner’s character, “Build it and they will come.” The saying has since become part of the lexicon. In some ways, the film ushered in a wave of nostalgia. There has been a building boom of new retro ballparks throughout the past two decades. The parks became cash cows, with ever increasing ticket and concession prices.
It was Major League Baseball with a touch of the suburban mall and county fair: giant food courts, water slides and various other forms of family entertainment. There were giant scoreboards that shot fireworks off into the night sky and jumbotrons designed to mesmerize the masses between innings. Bill Veeck would be proud. All that was missing was a petting zoo, giant squash competition and a wedding show. Elements of nostalgia abounded: old fashioned ads were placed on the outfield walls, and existing buildings were incorporated into the complexes (i.e. Baltimore and San Diego). Throwback days have become yearly occurrences on the schedule. With apologies to Shakespeare, if what’s past is prologue, nowhere is that more true than Major League Baseball (MLB).
I’m guilty of the nostalgia trap myself. Just last month I sat and watched Game 6 of the 1978 World Series on YouTube. What prompted me to do that? I don’t know. I was home sick from work. Maybe it was the recent death of Dodger pitcher Bob Welch. I became transfixed; from the pregame to the locker room trophy presentation. Joe Garigiola and Tony Kubek called the game while Curt Gowdy was the sideline guy (in the dugout). Can you imagine someone of Gowdy’s stature doing sideline work today? Picture someone like Jim Nantz, considered to be at the top of his profession, in a dugout asking a player, "How's the ankle?" Such was the importance of the World Series.
I remember watching the game that night with my family 37 years ago. Even my mother joined us and she hated baseball. But it was the World Series. She would always comment to my father when Thurman Munson came to the plate, “There’s Thurm, John.” We were big fans of the Yankee captain. As I sat reliving the game, seeing him on the screen was sad. Every time he came up to bat or blocked a ball in the dirt, I kept thinking about his death 10 months later. My wife thought I was crazy. I gave her the same response she gives me when I ask why she is watching Pride and Prejudice for the 20th time: “You don’t get it.”
There a million stories like mine. I can't remember what day it is, but I can tell you what the Yankee lineup was 35 years ago. Baseball was so ingrained in our culture that its popularity would affect the economy in dramatic ways. During Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, which started at 1 pm, trading volume at the New York Stock Exchange was so low, prices dropped dramatically.
During the past 20 years, overall attendance has risen, and that trend continued until recently. The game appears to have grown in some countries, particularly Australia and Europe. There’s a World Baseball Classic now. Even Uganda has started an increasingly successful baseball program that has won tournaments in Europe. And the cable TV packages are swelling owners’ bank accounts.
All that success is deceiving. Behind those numbers lay many hidden problems for Major League Baseball as a national sport. A graying fan base, increasing competition from other sports and a general apathy brought on by a long season have all helped to shrink the sport’s following.
Players get paid more, but do less. Whole careers are spent as a DH. Nobody seems to care if you strike out anymore as long you can pop 40 homers. Having a high fielding percentage is considered "old school." And go ahead and ask someone to lay down a bunt; you may as well ask them to reprogram a supercomputer. Relief pitchers can come in for one batter a game. A left handed middle relief pitcher can work three times a week, pitch to three batters, and make a million a year. I don't begrudge anyone getting paid. But there is a tipping point for the equilibrium between input and output. There's one more downside to all the pitching changes - the games are longer, much longer. A half inning late in the game could take 30-40 minutes. The average length of a game remains just over three hours. That business model cannot be sustained.
Empty seats can be seen everywhere on weekday nights. Take a look at a Yankee game. The sections between first and third are vacant even on weekends because the average fan can’t afford them. The same is true of Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, Tropicana Field, and Minute Maid Park. Just name the venue. If filled, the corporate seats usually contain soulless fans that don’t care.
The game’s biggest problem is its age. The average viewer on a local broadcast is over 55 and the average age of the season ticket holder is only slightly younger. Many defenders of the present state of the game would point to two issues to disprove my point: huge local TV deals and rising minor league attendance. That just proves my point further: the game is becoming regional in focus. A national apathy towards baseball is taking hold. Worst of all, kids are not playing anymore.
Since the end of the World Series last season, I have been reflecting on the state of baseball. As usual, I ask myself the same question every year: Is baseball still a vital part of the culture or just another sport?
World Series Scandal
The Good Old Days?
Going, going, gone?
Youth In Retreat
The baseball fields near my house lay empty on hot summer days except for the occasional Church softball games. The park that surrounds them is even devoid of kids most of the year. The fast-flowing river is all you can hear. The sound of a ball hitting a bat whether it be wood, aluminum and even Whiffle, that was so much a part of my childhood, is missing. You’re more likely to hear skateboards rumbling down the hill leading to the park. I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid walking anywhere with a baseball glove.
There’s still Little League and rec leagues. A team from Auburn even made the Little League World Series in 2012. That seemed to be the last gasp of the game around my area. My nephews don’t play. No interest. For others, the cost of playing is prohibitive: from tee ball through high school the “pay to play” system has become astronomical because parents use it to get into better schools and colleges. The kids have to show up at special camps in the offseason; then have to re-tryout for their travel team and high school every year. Some charge just to tryout. The personal coaching business has exploded to disgusting proportions. Baseball cards are big business now, kept in fire-proof glass cases instead of shoeboxes and sold by unscrupulous dealers who make PT Barnum look like Mother Theresa.
The spectacle of the Little League World Series as broadcast on ESPN makes me sick. If there was ever an event that signals a declining moral compass, it just might be the LLWS. Kids posing after they hit home runs, making rude gestures and then ESPN replaying the kids' errors over and over. I don't think Carl Stotz, the man who started youth baseball in Williamsport, PA during the Great Depression, ever envisioned this disgusting corporate largesse. So when I heard recently that Little League participation was decling rapidly in Upstate New York, I had mixed feelings. I've been railing about boys not playing the sport, but maybe we're getting what we deserve. In Newburgh, NY, a city on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, only 79 kids signed up for Little League in 2015. That's down from 200 in 2009. A 60% decline in 6 years.
While not as steep, Little League participation nationally will soon face the same crisis. During the 1990s, when participation peaked, there were almost 3 million kids playing. As of April 2015, that is down to 2.4 million, with no signs of abating. One California Little League had to drop from 8 teams in the 10-12-year-old major division to 3 teams by 2015. In Corvallis, Oregon, there's been a 25% decline in kids playing. There were approximately 800 kids registered in 2008. By 2012, that was down to 600. Like landlines and ticker tape, youth baseball is fading away.
The reasons vary. Economic factors play a role. Many families have never recovered from the recession. While important, tough times never affected baseball in prior years. Choice is probably a bigger factor. Are the kids playing other sports? Well, yes and no. They’re playing organized sports, for a time. The choice to play a particular sport is made by the parents long ahead of time now. But I put a lot of focus on what kids choose to do in their free time.
Playing in pick-up games of all sorts was one of my choices. That’s how I learned about life. Picking teams, negotiating over balls and strikes, as well as outs. These were life skills. The structure of the game facilitated that process. I don’t see kids doing that anymore and it plays into the greater narrative about the changing sports landscape. Everything costs more, schedules are tighter and neighborhoods are scattered. Within a two-mile area in my old neighborhood in the Bronx, there had to be 40,000 residents along with three elementary schools, two junior high schools and city parks everywhere. Catholic areas with lots of kids. Playing nine on nine was never a problem. And lots of African American kids playing as well.
Savior of the Game
I’m still trying to figure out why this still bothers me. Similar to my own Catholicism, I’m a lapsed baseball fan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made jokes about the Church, but as soon as someone from outside the church attacks it, I attack them. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. And I’m the same way with baseball. I’ve had foreign friends and even some Americans make fun of the game. I get furious. So I’m a man in the middle. In a weird paradox, I am both pulling away from the game and longing for it.
I don’t consider myself “old school.” Over the past 20 years I’ve become so much of a fan of the English Premier League that I consider it my second favorite spectator sport behind the NFL. The World Cup is a far better event than even the Olympics. I’ve embraced modern technology. I’m on all the social media sites, have a blog, a website, and text with my family and friends constantly. At least I think that I seek opportunities to grow and change. In today’s competitive environment, one has no choice. Even as I kid, I played street soccer with my friends, which was highly unusual for the time.
Still, there is something about the diminution of baseball within our culture that makes me sad. I speak to guys in their 20s who have never taped up a bat, never broke in a new glove or even worn a cup. One of my fondest memories from childhood was breaking in a new glove with 3-in-1 Oil or Vaseline, tying up with string for the night stuffed with at least one ball. It was a skill learned from your dad. If I mention Vaseline, string and balls in the same sentence today, someone will get the wrong idea. Such is the modern mindset: everything is a double entendre. Even breaking the beak of a baseball cap is over. Ugh! I don’t know what’s worse, the hipster beards or the way those caps are worn.
Gone are the street corner arguments that raged all year over who was better at what position. Growing up there were loud disagreements over who the better Yankee catcher was: Berra or Munson. My dad loved Bill Dickey. Even Elston Howard’s name got thrown in occasionally. When I was a teenager, I remember saying to one thirty something in my building that I thought Munson was the greatest. He was livid and nearly stained his already greasy white T shirt with his Italian ice from Jerry’s Pizzeria. We fit the stereotype: lots of hairy guys in sweaty, white V-neck tee shirts running around the block yelling about the Yankees. There was always an ostracized Mets fan too. No one gave it a second thought. It was like a Scorcese movie.
MLB has apparently taken notice. New Commissioner Rob Manfred said recently in the Wall Street Journal that "The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game." Participation is key. But the world has changed, very rapidly and apparently kids have moved on for good.
The Long Shadow of Joltin' Joe
Do you think the use of Sabermetrics has been good for the game?
Number, Numbers, Numbers
Arguments about a guy's stats still occur, but now they sound like corporate meetings with enough acronyms to rival a Pentagon briefing. Plain old stats like E.R.A. and R.B.I.s have been overshadowed by the new Sabermetrics terms: VORP, WAR and UZR. They sound like characters from Star Wars. Cue the Cantina Band or Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes.
Sabermetrics is a statistical analysis of baseball, which was popularized by the Society for American Baseball Research (hence the acronym SABER). Virtually all conversations about the game have been hijacked by these stats commandos. I don’t even think many of the media know what they mean but just feel smarter spouting statistics. I have nothing against nerd culture, but sometimes it sucks the life out of an activity. I challenge anyone to tell me how the game on the field is better because of sabermetrics.
Sport is very much like art, ephemeral in nature. It’s in the moment, not requiring constant analysis. One wouldn’t measure the angle of a ballerina’s kicks during a solo, and then determine how the next performance will go. Maybe the choreographer would, but the audience should never be thinking that hard.
The rise of sabermetrics has also taken away many of the fundamental aspects of the game. How many leadoff men bunt to get on anymore? The drag bunt was one of the most exciting plays in baseball. Hit king Rod Carew would not last today. His unconventional batting stances changed every few years. I'm surprised that Ichiro Suzuki managed to have such a long career. If a player gets 200 hits a year for a decade, that's Hall of Fame worthy. Yet there are those who still debate his candidacy. The sabermetricians consider him marginal at best. They rank him only 629th in career on-base percentage and of course, his slugging percentage is low. He can run, get on base and play defense. And he's criticized for it. It's like going to the Sistine Chapel and saying the paint job is nice but the building is too small.
Statistical analysis is bleeding the game of action. What was once a slow trickle effect, is now becoming a rising tide.
Balls in Play
I challenge anyone to tell me how the game on the field is better because of the use of sabermetrics. The reliance on data has led teams to value certain skills more than others; analytics encourages power pitching and power hitting. Skills, like hitting the opposite way, drag bunts and stealing bases, are no longer valued.
As a result, the number of balls put into play has been declining rapidly. Batted balls in play is based on the following formula:
Baseballs In Play = (At Bats + Sacrifice Flies + Sacrifice Bunts) – (Home Runs + Strikeouts).
This should not be confused with the Sabermetric calculation of Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which measures how many of an individual hitter’s balls in play go for hits, excluding home runs.
In 2009, batters put 130,217 balls in play or about 27% per game. By 2017, that was down to just over 121,400. For the 2018 season, the number was projected to be around 120,000, barely 25% per game. It surpassed that number very easily, reaching 120,698. That does not bode well for future fans. May as well watch batting practice, there’s more action. A 7.5% decline in less than a decade is a sharp drop.
There are a multitude of reasons for the change. Blogger Chuck Bannon noted that while home runs have increased, strikeouts dramatically increased, by almost 25% over the past decade. It’s only getting worse. In 2018, for the first time in the history of the game, strikeouts exceeded hits. There were 41,019 hits in 2018 compared to 41,207 strikeouts. Those concerned about the game saw this coming and the numbers are startling:
The strikeout issue has the Commissioner concerned. Fears that there is a correlation between the lack of action and attendance may have some foundation. For the first time in 15 years, total attendance dropped below 70 million; 17 teams experienced a decline in 2018. MLB blames much of that on historically bad weather, particularly in April. But with the average game time still over three hours, fans did not want to chance a long night.
Solutions might be hard to find. Pace of play initiatives were introduced in 2018 such as limiting mound visits and a faster replay process. There is talk of banning the shift, pitch clocks and limiting pitching changes. However, the new power paradigm has become ingrained even in the minors. Any changes will be fought by the players’ union. But if TV ratings and attendance keep slipping, change will be inevitable.
Room for the Unconventional
Is there no room in the game anymore for slap hitters who are great defensive players as well? Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Martin, Bucky Dent, Brian Doyle, Freddie Patek and Bernie Carbo would have no place in the game if sabermetrics had come along earlier in the 20th century. The oddball and the lesser talented always had a home in America's pastime. No more thanks to the madness that is sabermetrics.
I would even make the connection between the rise of steroids in the 1980s and 90s with the increase in statistical analysis of the game. Although I'm not particularly bothered by PEDs in general, but it is representative of a greater trend which trickles down to the youth leagues. No longer could the undersized second baseman follow his dream and work his way into the major leagues. Now he has to muscle up and make sure his OPS is good enough. When you have to look like a wrestler from the WWE to play first base, there's a problem.
Then there is the classic case of Pete Rose. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer if there ever was one. One of my idols as a kid, I watched him at Shea Stadium many times, even during his famous hit streak. The streak captivated a nation. No player wanted to win more. But how do you quantify a guy like Rose in today's metrics? You really can't. Using one of sabermetrics most famous measurements, Wins Against Replacement (WAR), his 1980 season with the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies would be a statistical flop. A horrible -0.4. Anyone who watched Rose that year and in the Series, knows that his contribution to that team was immeasurable. There should always be a place in the game for a guy like Rose. Hopefully, his banishment will end soon.
And just a side note, albeit a snarky one: one of the leading proponents of Sabremetrics, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, does not have a World Series ring. The guy even got a book written about him, Moneyball, which was made into a movie of the same name. I have not read the book or seen the movie. I’ll wait for the sequel: Goose Egg.
Sandy Alderson, baseball executive, is another true believer in sabermetrics. His current job? General manager of the New York Mets. And he's held the job since 2010. How many World Series have the Mets won in the past five years? Enough said.
What's happened to baseball mirrors what has happened to the American worker in many ways: they have become numbers. Once the sport is reduced to a spreadsheet, it loses its soul. There are now dire predictions that within a decade 30% of the American workforce will lose their jobs due to automation or robotics. In professional sports, especially baseball, players seem like robots. Year round training and pressure does not allow these guys to have fun or look at the big picture. We've all lost that.
Everyone Had A Dream
Baseball was born 170 years ago. Played in every city, small town and farm field, the game was a reflection of the country: one man at the plate against nine, trying to hit the ball where they ain’t. The odds were stacked against him, but we were Americans. Odds didn’t matter. Myths were created. Writers began to wax poetic about the game. Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat achieved instant popularity. Orphans like Babe Ruth became icons, beer magnates such as Jacob Ruppert bought teams, and black entrepreneurs started their own league. Presidents started coming to opening day. Parks became the new Cathedrals. Paris had Notre Dame, but New York had Yankee Stadium. Flying buttresses could never compete with home runs.
There was an ugly side too. The game was segregated at the dawn of the 20th century and remained so until 1947. Not everything was great in the “good old days”: childhood diseases ran rampid, little safety net for the poor and in many cases, ethnic and racial strife consumed everyday life. But through it all, baseball remained a steady hand, able to weather the times. Even a shortage of men during WWII couldn’t stop the public’s appetite for the sport. A women’s league, the AAGPBL, was created that lasted until the early 1950s.
The game has survived numerous challenges and disasters including the 1919 Black Sox scandal when several players from the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. Within a decade, baseball was even more popular. It defied expectations. Babe Ruth’s emergence had a lot to do with that. Little League, American Legion ball, schools, churches, and even foreign countries, particularly Japan, helped spread the game. In the modern era (post 1968), we’ve had several players strikes, lockouts, the cancellation of the World Series in 1994 (due to a strike); one of the game’s greatest, Pete Rose, banned for gambling and of course, the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs over the past 20 years.
So what is different now? Is it money? Pace of the game? Steroids? TV? Fatherless homes? More choices? Combination? I don’t know. All of those factors have contributed to the hollowing out of the fan base. But I can’t just blame modern society for the lack of participation and viewership.
The World Waits
One for the Ages
Three Blind Mice
The men who run the game, executives, union reps and journalists, share this responsibility. They’ve turned a blind eye to the changes going on around them because of their greed. I expect the owners and union to just look at the bottom line. They really have no choice. It’s the media members for whom I have higher expectations. We see almost everything through a media filter. Despite the variety of social media platforms available today, reporters and columnists still have a large role to play in questioning authority and shaping public discourse. That line is getting blurred more and more as the muckrakers go to work for those in power.
Baseball writers cast themselves as the last stalwarts against the barbaric hoards; decrying the changes, but still making money off it. These writers are more powerful than reporters covering other sports. Much of it has to do with their large numbers and the Hall of Fame voting in which they have a stranglehold. I’ve seen print reporters who had strong opinions similar to mine go to work for ESPN or FoxSports. Once ensconced in their juicy positions, they cease the criticism and muckraking that should be the hallmark of the profession. Essentially, they became employees of MLB. Others get book contracts to write the authorized biographies of players, sans the foibles and illegal activities of their subjects.
These same “journalists” made Jose Canseco into a paragon of truth, albeit unintentionally. Canseco, a 16 year veteran of the major leagues, never hid his steroid use. He also had various other run-ins with the law ranging from DUIs, domestic violence and even smuggling illegal prescriptions from Mexico. After his playing career was curtailed for various injuries (some probably related to PEDs), he felt ostracized by his former teammates and MLB in general. Payback came in the form of him naming names about who was using. His book Juiced is probably the most honest look at the Major Leagues since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. He embraced the image of a pariah. Deemed a “rat” by most of the league and a lot of media members, they all had to eat their words when the Mitchell Report, commissioned by MLB, revealed the depth of PED usage in the sport. Despite the derision and pillorying by everyone in the baseball-industrial complex, not one defamation suit has ever been filed against him or the book’s publisher. He did the job that the baseball writers should have been doing all along.
On the flip side, there are writers who are so hard-headed in their purity they can’t see their own hypocrisy. You have such closed minded writers who would never think of voting Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens into the Hall of Fame while at the same time never acknowledging the less than upstanding citizens who are already in the Hall. Their arrogance and parochialism borders on the ridiculous. Some players, like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, are kept out because of “suspicions.” If there was a John Birch Society of sports writing, the BBWAA would be it. The list of players and managers/coaches who should be in the Hall is endless. The delay for some is disgraceful. And it has nothing to do with steroids; just power arrogantly wielded by simpletons masquerading as intellectuals. Even writers that I respect, like Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, just take it too far. Purity tests help no one.
So we’re left with a compliant media faction and a defiant media faction. It’s like Congress; division doesn’t get us anywhere. Neither of these two factions can help move the game in the direction it needs to go in order to survive and thrive.
Lastly, I can’t absolve the players’ union from their complicity in trying to stall any reform. I would never condemn union reps for doing everything and anything to advocate for their clients. It is their professional responsibility. But there is a bigger issue here and one that could have easily been resolved had they taken a pragmatic approach in drug testing. Regardless of the moral and legal arguments for and against, the public wanted it. This was personal to the fans. It was their game and in many minds, the union's intransigence was staining it. For a group of guys who claimed to be on the side of the working man, their insensitivity to the average American's perspective was shocking. The rhetoric and absolute nonsense that spewed from the likes of Donald Fehr, Gene Orza and even Marvin Miller during the late 80s and into the 2000s, was astonishing in its shortsightedness. Like the owners, they lived in a bubble, never realizing the damage they had caused to the reputation of the game. Miller is now dead. Orza is retired and Fehr has gone on to the NHL players’ association. They got a lot of guys paid, but at what price to the future of the game? We will see in 20 years.
1990s: The Game Hung in the Balance
There was a tipping point in the downward slide. If I could point to one event that set the current state of the game in motion and from which it has not recovered, it is the resignation of Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992. He’s known as the last commissioner for various reasons. After the sudden death of Commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989, Vincent, the deputy commissioner, was thrust into the spotlight.
He was a brilliant attorney with a passion for the game. Preserving the sport for future generations was his goal. But his sense of mission and high moral character contrasted sharply with the bottom-line owners. Within two years, a large majority of the owners gave him a no confidence vote. Much of their anger was based on his intervention into the 1990 owners’ lockout of the players. There were other issues too; the owners spent most of his term trying to build up momentum for an ouster. Vincent’s concerns were justified; much of what he portended has come to fruition. And that’s a shame. Here was a man who said no to being a puppet and paid with his job.
One of the leaders of the opposition to Vincent was the Milwaukee Brewers majority owner, Bud Selig. He eventually became acting commissioner and then received the actual title a few years later, just having retired in 2014. The seemingly feckless Selig has presided over the sinking of the baseball ship for 20 years. Now, in the ultimate slap in the face, this man has been elected to the Hall of Fame. He turned a blind eye to the tide of problems facing the game. How a man like that could reach such heights says something about our society. His sordid story would take another hub. I digress.
An argument is frequently made that the problems I’ve cited exist only at the major league level. That reasoning is flawed. The game’s place in our society at every level, in one way or another, is determined by the decisions that come from the Major League Commissioner’s office. His decisions touch everything from ticket prices, ballpark atmosphere, licensing, concessions and even the minor leagues. The tone of the game is set by the man at the top. MLB may not be responsible for the overall cultural shift in this vast nation, but a high profile organization can still play a powerful role in defining it.
World Series: Sinking Numbers
Ratings, Not Sabermetrics
Regardless of the inflated attendance figures, and the monumental local TV deals for teams like the Angels and Dodgers, this game will be little more than a niche sport by 2040 (very much like the NHL is today). It’s not extreme pessimism, just extreme realism. One needs to look no further than the ultimate bellwether of our modern society: television ratings.
For the past 30 years, national television ratings for both the Game of the Week, playoffs and World Series have been plummeting. In 1986, the Mets-Red Sox Series garnered nearly a 27 average share nationally. Game 7 alone came close to a 40 share. New York and Boston practically shut down that night. The average this century for the Series is between an 8 and 10 share. One game in 2008 received a 6.5. The inverse relationship is clear. As expanded cable television became ubiquitous, national baseball ratings dropped. Add the internet or mobile, and the choices became endless.
To be fair, the 2016 Series had some of the best ratings in years due in part to the Chicago Cubs nationwide following and there was a Game 7. Plus their opponent, the Cleveland Indians, had not won a World Series since 1948. So you had two fan bases crying out for a long-awaited victory. However, if you breakdown the ratings per game, they really were not very good. Ratings were in the teens with around 20 million viewers. Game 7 received a 21 rating with just over 40 million watching. Thirty years earlier, Game 7 between the Mets and Red Sox had over 56 million hanging on every pitch; times have changed.
The 2017 Series also went seven games and was somewhat compelling, with two extra inning games. Having the Dodgers and Astros meant that MLB got the second and fourth biggest markets in the country. But overall ratings fell slightly with Game 7 attracting just over 28 million viewers. The game was played on a Wednesday night, which never helps. Also, the average duration of the games that year was over four hours. TV sets were being turned off gradually throughout the evening. In just over fifty years, the average length of a World Series game has doubled.
Sadly, the 2018 Series stopped hope in its tracks as ratings fell 23%. It only went five games, so that could be an issue. But the Dodgers made for frustrating viewing, as they struck out with men in scoring position like it was a habit.
Behind The Curve
It’s not just the changing technological landscape. The game itself both on and off the field is hurting. Slow play is partly to blame. Bad marketing on the part of MLB is a big problem. They don’t market their stars very well. But late games don’t help at all. How can kids on the east coast watch a west coast game in April and May on a weeknight? When the Astros were inexplicably moved to the American League last year, they now had to play the Angels, Mariners and A’s 12-18 times on the road. More than half of those start times will be around 9PM Central Time. That’s a lot of games kids under 12 in southeast Texas probably won’t see.
The attenuated circumstances in which MLB finds itself lay in stark contrast to the National Football League. The NFL has done a marvelous job using different platforms to market its product to a society with minuscule attention spans on the one hand and stats geeks on the other. You can watch games on a mobile device and the Red Zone package on the NFL Network is addicting. Fantasy leagues are much easier for the NFL fan than a baseball fan. Less to do. Even women have joined the madness. In my office, there is a group of ladies who spend hours a week discussing their rosters. If you had told me that a decade ago, I would have laughed.
And then there is the video game goliath, Madden NFL. It has a stranglehold on the gaming world. Every year the launch party is like a movie premiere. Who will be on the cover? What new capabilities does it have? I was just at the mall and they had set up a kiosk for people to come up and start playing.
The NFL was always ahead of the curve, looking 20 years down the road. Rules changes that they put in place back in the early 80s helped create the dominate position it holds today. It might be unfair to compare the two sports because the NFL and the NCAA products fit the modern viewer much better. But foresight is free; all it requires is an open mind. Apparently it’s not free enough for MLB, who are forever playing catch up.
The threats continue to increase every year. Timing is everything. Cartoons are not the only programming on Saturday mornings anymore. You can get up early on Saturday and Sunday (before the NFL starts) to watch the English Premier League on the NBC Sports Network and NBC Network (the former home of MLB game of the week for 40 years). This will pay off for soccer within 20 years. All of the NFL games, with the exception of Monday Night Football in the east and central time zones, are viewable during kid-friendly times. ESPN starts their college football pregame hours ahead of the first kickoff. If I’m 10 years old, and I’m watching ESPN on location in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with funny signs, mascots and cheerleaders, what am I going to gravitate towards as I get older?
Putting my feelings against the extra wildcard aside, I did enjoy watching a small market team like the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series. Take note, they stole bases and bunted. Felt like 1985 all over again.
Then the silliness of the current landscape came back with the Giancarlo Stanton deal. I don’t begrudge anyone their money. If you can get it, take it. It’s the management of these organizations that think short term. Hubris and greed erase common sense on a daily basis. Eventually the overpriced tickets and late night TV games erode your base. Some long-term thinking would save our pastime. Is there hope of reversing this trend toward irrelevance? Yes. But it will take courage and innovating thinking:
Start with the kids. Set aside some summer day games for children 12 and under at very low prices. I don’t mean small groups.10,000 kids per game should be the goal for these events. Put them in the outfield sections or bleachers. Maybe 3-4 games a summer.
Enforce the time limits between pitches. Be strict about it. If the traditionalists don’t like it, I don’t care. They’ll be just angry old men sitting in the park yelling at others about baseball while no one knows what they are talking about. My fear is that some little boy will listen to his grandfather talk about the game 50 years on, and the boy will ask “Grandpa, what was baseball?”
Start the regular season after April 15th and end it by September 30th. Waiting two weeks to start might avoid some ridiculously cold, rainy and sometimes snowy days at the start of the season. Ending the season early is common sense.
Put teams where they belong. If a team is in Texas, they belong in the central division. The Astros should go back to the NL Central. The Rangers, which have been in the AL West since their move from D.C. (as the 2nd incarnation of the Senators), should go to the AL Central. Do they have this great rivalry with the M’s, A’s or Angels? No. Put the Tigers back in the AL East. Or the Cleveland Indians. Mix it up. There are so many teams with really no tradition at all (i.e. Marlins, Nationals, Rockies, Rays, D-backs, etc.), no one will care if they switch leagues.
Make the regular season mean something. Both World Series teams in 2014 were the fourth best in their respective leagues to get into the playoffs. That’s happening more and more. Award the team with the best record home field throughout including the Series. Give them a bye in the first round.
- Embrace the Latino player. Language barriers exist in marketing many of MLB’s best players. The Caribbean is still a hotbed of talent and fandom. Mexico and Venezuela play the game too. Facilitate that interaction with the Anglo fans and those players.
A concerned mother recently published an article in defense of Little League and organized sports in general. The basic theme was that sports mirrors life and has intrinsic benefits:
My son's team lost 16-7. It was a weekend of highs and lows. That's sports. And that's life. There's are plenty of good ways for kids to learn that lesson. Organized sports is one of them.
I couldn't agree more.
Do you think baseball is still America's pastime?
Hope Springs Tenatively
On a brighter note, kudos to MLB for their urban youth initiative that helps get inner city kids back into baseball. How effective it will be remains to be seen. But it’s a start. My parents couldn’t afford the increased fees to play senior ball, so I had to stop. I always missed it. This program will help.
If I had one piece of advice to the new commissioner, it would be this: think long-term, not short-term financial gain. In other words, do the opposite of Bud Selig. Baseball was once the fabric that bound us together as much as the flag. It is part of the American culture, and just treating it like a consumer good does us all a disservice.
Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. Piazza was inducted in 2016 with 83% of the vote. Bagwell's turn came in 2017 with just over 86% of the vote. At least that's two wrongs that have been righted. We continue to wait for greats like Bonds and Clemens. Some writers have been speaking out about the issue. There appears to be some dissension beginning to emerge in the BBWAA. Members are beginning to break with their hardheaded colleagues. We can only hope.
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