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Strike Three: Baseball Is Dead

Updated on June 13, 2017
Pete Rose with the Phillies, 1979.
Pete Rose with the Phillies, 1979. | Source
Giancarlo Stanton
Giancarlo Stanton | Source
The late Bob Welch. His famous 1978 World Series duel in Game 2 with Reggie Jackson was an unforgettable baseball memory for me.
The late Bob Welch. His famous 1978 World Series duel in Game 2 with Reggie Jackson was an unforgettable baseball memory for me. | Source
Thurman Munson (1947-1979) - One of the toughest guys to ever play the game.
Thurman Munson (1947-1979) - One of the toughest guys to ever play the game. | Source
Hall of Fame Broadcaster Curt Gowdy
Hall of Fame Broadcaster Curt Gowdy | Source

Changing Times

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.”

During the past 20 years, overall attendance has risen, and has remained so the past few years. 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.


Shifting Priorities

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 as 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. 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 1919 Chicago White Sox
The 1919 Chicago White Sox | Source

The Good Old Days?

Were people really better behaved years ago? Ebbets Field 1940. An angry Dodger fan attacks an umpire after a bitter extra inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds.  This guy would be charged with terrorism today.
Were people really better behaved years ago? Ebbets Field 1940. An angry Dodger fan attacks an umpire after a bitter extra inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds. This guy would be charged with terrorism today. | Source

Going, going, gone?

Pennsylvania Little Leaguers in 1973.
Pennsylvania Little Leaguers in 1973. | Source

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 Corvalis, 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 roll. 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

Babe Ruth as a Yankee in the early 20s. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Ruth's exploits kept fans coming out to the park.
Babe Ruth as a Yankee in the early 20s. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Ruth's exploits kept fans coming out to the park. | Source

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.


A Cathedral?

The new Yankee Stadium. It's lacking worshippers. Empty seats litter the lower levels, particiulary behind home plate. It's an embarrasment to Yankee ownership.
The new Yankee Stadium. It's lacking worshippers. Empty seats litter the lower levels, particiulary behind home plate. It's an embarrasment to Yankee ownership. | Source

A Long Goodbye

A retired Joe DiMaggio looks out from the press box at Yankee Stadium during Game 1 of the 1957 World Series. This is a brilliant photo that speaks to the viewer. Recently divorced from Marilyn Monroe, he was at a crossroads in his life.
A retired Joe DiMaggio looks out from the press box at Yankee Stadium during Game 1 of the 1957 World Series. This is a brilliant photo that speaks to the viewer. Recently divorced from Marilyn Monroe, he was at a crossroads in his life. | Source
Writer Bill James: The leading prophet of the Sabermetrics movement.
Writer Bill James: The leading prophet of the Sabermetrics movement. | Source
Shea Stadium, 1965
Shea Stadium, 1965 | Source
A pitcher from the AAGPBL.
A pitcher from the AAGPBL. | Source
President George W. Bush throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series.
President George W. Bush throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series. | Source
Yogi Berra in an ad for government bonds from the 1950s. When was the last time baseball had social relevance?
Yogi Berra in an ad for government bonds from the 1950s. When was the last time baseball had social relevance? | Source
Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon
Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon | Source
A rare sight: Babe Ruth sliding into 3rd base.  Not sure of the location.
A rare sight: Babe Ruth sliding into 3rd base. Not sure of the location. | Source

Stats Ahoy

Do you think the use of Sabermetrics has been good for the game?

See results
Spitballer Gaylord Perry.
Spitballer Gaylord Perry. | Source

Number, Numbers, Numbers

These arguments 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.

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 lead off men bunt to get on anymore? The drag bunt was one of the most exciting plays in baseball. Guys like Rod Carew would not last today. His unconventional batting stances changed every few years. I'm surprised that Ichiro Suzuki has 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.


Is Change Always Good?

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 particular bothered by PEDs in general, 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.










Characters

Gene Garber - His exaggerated windup intrigued fans and players alike.
Gene Garber - His exaggerated windup intrigued fans and players alike. | Source

Everyone Had A Dream

Negro League Legend Buck O'Neill.  He was denied his chance to play in the Major Leagues.
Negro League Legend Buck O'Neill. He was denied his chance to play in the Major Leagues. | Source
My father, John J. Kelly, as a member of the Bronx Rams, a semi-pro team, 1939. The war interrupted his quest for a baseball career. The kid in the middle was killed in Germany on May 7, 1945.
My father, John J. Kelly, as a member of the Bronx Rams, a semi-pro team, 1939. The war interrupted his quest for a baseball career. The kid in the middle was killed in Germany on May 7, 1945. | Source
Ebbets Field, 1949.
Ebbets Field, 1949. | Source
Larry Doby, the second African American to play in the Major Leagues.
Larry Doby, the second African American to play in the Major Leagues. | Source

America's Pastime

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

Press box at the 1912 World Series.  Over 70 years later I would sit behind the temporary press box at Yankee Stadium; it did not look that much different.
Press box at the 1912 World Series. Over 70 years later I would sit behind the temporary press box at Yankee Stadium; it did not look that much different. | Source

One for the Ages

Carlton Fisk's iconic urging of his home run ball to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. But the Reds bounced back to win the next night.
Carlton Fisk's iconic urging of his home run ball to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. But the Reds bounced back to win the next night. | Source
Author Mike Lupica
Author Mike Lupica | Source

Three Blind Mice

Donald Fehr. Former MLBPA rep now working for the NHLPA.
Donald Fehr. Former MLBPA rep now working for the NHLPA. | Source
The late Marvin Miller. Despite his tremendous accomplishments in the labor movement, he dropped the ball on PEDs. Fan perceptions matter.
The late Marvin Miller. Despite his tremendous accomplishments in the labor movement, he dropped the ball on PEDs. Fan perceptions matter. | Source
The now retired Gene Orza.  Combative and dedicated, he fought drug testing as long as he could.
The now retired Gene Orza. Combative and dedicated, he fought drug testing as long as he could. | Source

Foul Territory

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

Fay Vincent, the "Last Commissioner."
Fay Vincent, the "Last Commissioner." | Source
Bud Selig, the 9th Commissioner of Major League Baseball.  He helped destroy the game, hence his derisive nickname, "Bottom Line Bud."
Bud Selig, the 9th Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He helped destroy the game, hence his derisive nickname, "Bottom Line Bud." | Source

You're Out

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 assistant 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

Since 1986 when it reached 36 millions viewers, World Series TV ratings have steadily declined.
Since 1986 when it reached 36 millions viewers, World Series TV ratings have steadily declined. | Source

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 English Premier League is grabbing viewership every Saturday and Sunday morning.
The English Premier League is grabbing viewership every Saturday and Sunday morning. | Source
John Madden
John Madden | Source

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?



Safeco Field

Beautiful Safeco Field, one of the finest parks in the nation. Everyone needs to go at least once.
Beautiful Safeco Field, one of the finest parks in the nation. Everyone needs to go at least once.
Safeco, a view from the visitors' dugout.
Safeco, a view from the visitors' dugout. | Source
Source

Solutions

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.

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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.


Author's Note

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.

Sources

Books

  • Bouton, Jim. Ball Four. World 1970
  • Lupica, Mike. Summer of ’98. New York: Putnam 1999
  • Canseco, Jose. Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. It Books edition. 2006.

Print Articles

  • Miller, John W. “In Africa, Out Of Nowhere, There Is Baseball.” Wall Street Journal, December 25, 2014: online edition.
  • Smith, Claire. “Team Owners Take A 3d Strike at Vincent.” New York Times, August 24, 1992: C7.
  • Smith, Claire. "Haughty Owners Are Not a Measure of Vincent." New York Times, September 13, 1992: S5.
  • Costa, Brian. "Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball." Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2015:http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-baseball-is-losing-children-1432136172. (Life Section).
  • Chass, Murray. “Prepare for Lockout In Spring of ’93, Fehr Is Warning Players.” New York Times, March 31, 1992: B14.
  • Chass, Murray. "Vincent, Bowing to Owners' Will, Resigns as Baseball Commissioner." New York Tines, September 8, 1992: A1.
  • Janes, Erika. "In Defense of Little League." Parents Magazine, June 2, 2015. From Parents Perspective section: http://www.parents.com/blogs/parents-perspective/2015/06/02/the-parents-perspective/in-defense-of-little-league/
  • Kirkpatrick, Cliff. "Several factors contribute to youth baseball's declining numbers." Corvalis Gazette-Times, June 29, 2012. www.gazettetimes.com. (Oregon)
  • Ray, Mike. "Sports Chatter: Little League seeing decline in participants." Colfax Record, April 9, 2015. www.colfaxrecord.com. (California)

Web Sources

  • Nielson.com
  • http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/news/mitchell/index.jsp
  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alicia-jessop/youth-baseball-participation_b_5702009.html
  • http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mark-mcgwire-apology-steroids-part-worldwide-lie-article-1.462884
  • hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/10/29/bill-james-not-a-statistical-guru-not-impressed-by-war/
  • Hirsch, Sheldon. "Does Ichiro Belong in the Hall of Fame?" www.realclearsports.com/articles. December 30, 2014.
  • Lindgren, Hugo. "The World Series: Angles vs. Giants." Slate.com, October 24, 2002.
  • Peters, Justin. "Good Riddance to Little League." Slate.com, May 26, 2015.
  • Scocca, Tom. "Fox Really Did Ruin Baseball: World Cup Game Matches Ratings for World Series." Slate.com, June 28, 2010.
  • Scocca, Tom. "Failed Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's Exciting Playoffs Reach All-Time Ratings Low, Again." Slate.com, November 2, 2010.

Comments

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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      As a baseball fan, I really enjoyed reading this very interesting hub. Yes, baseball has changed since when I was a kid growing up in the 50s. The players are in it for the money now and there is absolutely no loyalty to a team like there was years ago. It is expensive to see games live, so a lot of the inner city people especially the black can not afford to go to the ball park, This in turn is making baseball less attractive to Afro-Americans as evidenced by the dwindling number of their players in the major leagues now. Voted up and sharing on Hubpages.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you for the effort you put into this hub. I've lived and died with my Atlanta Braves since way back when the only reason to go to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was to watch Dale Murphy swing the bat. The thing that has most turned me off has been the constant trades of players. These days the owners expect you to be loyal to the franchise no matter how often they gut the team between seasons. To me, the team is the players.

    • CharlieClaywell profile image

      Charlie Claywell 2 years ago

      Excellent Hub! I grew up on the Big Red Machine and totally agree with your comments about Pete Rose's 'value' if he were judged by today's metrics. Which is really sad, since few, if any players before or after have brought his level of love of the game or intensity of play. He was such a well-loved player in my region (an hour north of Cincinnati) that when I was a kid the small car dealership in my hometown (of 2000) brought Rose in to sign autographs for the kids. It was a big day for the town. I agree with your solutions as well, especially about bringing kids back into the game -- they need to feel the excitement of the park.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Thanks for all the great comments. Much appreciated. The article evolved from my ranting about sabermetrics (saving that for another time). I have been encouraged by Comm. Manfried's comments the past few weeks. Whether it's too little, too late is another matter. We could use another Pete Rose. :)

    • Paul Edmondson profile image

      Paul Edmondson 2 years ago from Burlingame, CA

      I agree it starts with the kids. Andrew McCutchen wrote a piece recently that I thought you might find interesting as it relates to your Hub.

      http://www.theplayerstribune.com/left-out/

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Thanks Mr. Edmondson. That was an incredible article by McCutchen. So true. It needs to be heard. On Friday, Justin Morneau, a Mariner, was on the radio talking about this very subject and said that when he went to sign up his 6 year old for LL, it was almost $1100. One of the hosts had to pay $600 each for his twins. Ridiculous and sad.

    • Valeant profile image

      JOC 2 years ago from Syracuse, NY

      I liked the info and the organization of it. I like the format of your sources especially and may start to use that. It looks cleaner.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Thx Valeant. This was a tough article to write. I had to reign in my passion. In terms of sourcing, I spend days on it. And really work hard to identify each source by type. As a person who has had his hubs stolen several times, I can't think of a greater sin for a writer not to give credit where credit is due.

    • 10000001 profile image

      madugundu krishna 23 months ago from Yemmiganur

      it is my interesting game

    • Mr Archer profile image

      Mr Archer 22 months ago from Missouri

      What an excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on Baseball. When you described breaking in a new glove my mind flew back some forty-five years or more watching my dad get ready to play in a fast pitch softball game. Asking him "Why do you put you pants on wrong side out?" And then smiling in amazement as he showed me how it happened. How many players today even know how or why this took place? How the sanitary socks and stirrups would be held in place by the bottom of the pants when turned inside out? The world has changed and not for the better. Baseball is our heritage and we are forsaking it. Too many children desire to play online games rather than a pickup game in the park with their friends. It is beyond sad. But I thank you for this walk down memory lane today.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 22 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Thx, Mr. Archer. I really appreciate the kind words. With the death Yogi today, I thought about the state of the game again. When I tell people who never played the game about how we used to break in a glove, they still look at me strangely. For baseball, it's "Getting late, early." Stay well.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Everybody keeps saying baseball is dead, and although the TV rating reflect it, the salaries to the players still far exceed those of other sports. I think the fact that there are 162 games lines the pockets of the owners, even when TV revenue might fall off. But even then, despite declining ratings, the major TV outlets still fall over each other in putting up a hefty bid for the contract.

      I think baseball survives because it is still fun, and relatively affordable, to attend a game. I can't afford a football ticket, and basketball is way out of the question too. But I can still go and watch my Padres without making too large a dent in the bank account. Great expose. You covered all the bases, if you'll pardon the pun.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 14 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Thanks, Mel. It's still fun to go to the games, but I now find it hard to watch on TV, compared to how much I watched as a kid. I watch more golf and NASCAR than baseball. Much more. This afternoon I had on the Players' Championship and watched nearly 3 hours straight. I can't sit still for 3 hours of BB.

      The sport has become regional now. $$ comes from those local packages. But for me the warning sign is the young. I know the game is still going strong in Latin American and some parts of Asia. But LL participation is still falling in those same metro areas where MLB is making tons of money. It's a strange dichotomy.

    • profile image

      Dan 4 months ago

      Baseball is still very popular in Japan and the Caribbean. It may be waning in the US, but who knows, maybe it will become the next big sport in some far away country you'd never expect. Look at cricket. Originally an English sport brought to India, nowadays English sports scene is nothing but soccer, but cricket is huge in India.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 4 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comments. You make some great points. Asia and Caribbean are still hotbeds of baseball and they will remain so for years to come. I think that highlights the growing cultural and lifestyle differences going on around the world. It's ironic because over the past couple of months, I've been donating to all these Little League fundraisers for friends' kids. Still have the pull towards the game and want them to enjoy it. But I don't get the excitement over pitchers and catchers like I used to this time of year.

      On a side note, I've tried to watch cricket for a while, and I found it impossible. :)

    • profile image

      Steve 2 months ago

      I read some spots here and there (reading while at work -- should be working :D)...

      Your research and time spent on this article is indisputable. Well done.

      However, I disagree with your title and some of the tenants of this article. To flat out say "Baseball is dead" is somewhat extreme. I'd argue that kind of reactionary lead is indicative of some of the things you argue about... a changing of times and attitudes. Going from 3 million to 2.4 million is a decline. That's not a death. And, as another commenter pointed out, baseball is THRIVING in other countries. This year's WBC was wildly popular.

      I have a lot to say about some of your other points, but I think it'd deserve a proper rebuttal instead of some off the cuff comment. You worked hard on this article and I'm not going to step on that.

      In sum, I disagree that "baseball is dead." Your passion and love for the game rival my own, so I appreciate what you fear. I just disagree. I LOVE BASEBALL, and I CAN watch a 3 hour game. I DO see the value in added stats. I DON'T believe that the arguments have ended... just look no further than the internet. Only the medium has changed. There are thousands of articles out there about the game and opinions on moves and players.

      I think a lot of your issues comes from the idea that "change is bad." Well I'm as much in love with baseball as anyone, and I have enjoyed some of the change.

      Baseball is an amazing game. I appreciate your article. But I disagree...it's far from dead. Different, sure. But alive.

      Cheers.

    • lions44 profile image
      Author

      CJ Kelly 2 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Hi Steve,

      Really appreciate your thoughtful response. One of the best comments I've had.

      I did not want it to sound like a "get off my lawn" type of rant because I'm not that way; quite the opposite. If I thought the game was more interesting now, I'd be fine. But I stand by statement that watching a game today can be tortuous.

      Not sure if I used this example in the article, but a Yankees-Astros game last year was a exhibit A (sorry if I'm repeating myself). The top half of the 7th took between 30-40 minutes. More than half of that time was taken up by pitching changes. That's the equivalent of watching a replay review for 30 minutes during an NFL game. There lies my problem. A game needs action. Strategic moves are vital to the game but so is movement.

      Certainly the game remains popular in Latin America/Caribbean and parts of Asia. But I stand by my statement that baseball will be a niche sport in 20 years. We are evolving as a society and changing interests are a part of that. If Major League Baseball was once the biggest sport in the U.S. and it becomes just another game on the schedule, then that's an incredible decline. I don't want my prediction to come true, but I can't see how the game can grow in North America anymore.

      Glad I made the workday a little more tolerable. Thx. :)

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