Thursday, March 31, 2011

It’s Opening Day!

Does anyone care?

Ah baseball. The national pastime. A slowly dying sport.

I became a fan of baseball in my late twenties. Growing up I didn’t care at all about baseball. I didn’t watch the games, I didn’t play Little League, I was completely disinterested in the players. I started watching when the Cleveland Indians were actually decent, back when Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Robbie Alomar, Omar Vizquel, etc. were playing. Now as an adult I love to go to games, follow the season and participate in the occasional fantasy baseball league. I would also say I am a dying breed.

By any measure, baseball is rapidly fading in the sports world. That doesn’t mean it is irrelevant because people will still come to the ballpark and players and owners alike will rake in big bucks. That is true today. The future doesn’t look nearly as bright. Kids aren’t playing it like they used to and baseball is being replaced by faster, more active sports like soccer and basketball. The question is why? Why are kids not playing, why are other sports pulling away in popularity? Some of it may have to do with the relative complexity of playing baseball. You need a bunch of kids to play even if you aren’t playing with full teams. A couple of kids can play catch but to play baseball you need probably at least ten kids or you will spend your whole time chasing the ball. Trying to find ten kids in a neighborhood who a) want to play something other than a video game, b) are interested in baseball and c) aren’t already at one of the other activities today’s overcommitted kids are involved in is nearly impossible. You can shoot baskets by yourself but you really need a team to play baseball and that is getting harder to come by in our superbusy neighborhoods and shrinking families.

There are a lot of theories: inflated salaries, steroids, etc. I don’t think the drop in popularity has a thing to do with player salaries. I also don’t think it has anything to do with steroids. Players in the NFL make tons of money and certainly use performance enhancing drugs but the NFL is wildly popular. The fact that only a few times are really competitive each year is also pretty irrelevant, NFL teams sell out routinely even for really bad teams. So what is the proble?

It all has to do with a culture that is used to immediate gratification, splash and excitement.

When you look at the sports world, football is supreme. The games are events with tailgating, huge scoreboards, packed stadiums. The play on the field is explosive and violent. Because of the play clock, something is always happening unless a player is hurt or there is an instant replay being reviewed. There tends to be a lot of action. The same is true to a lesser extent with basketball, someone is always at least taking a shot. Baseball is more like a chess game: intentional walks, pitching changes, batter match-ups, throws to first base to hold the runner. This is also why soccer is not and never will be terrible popular. There is a lot of action but the field is so huge that shots on goal can be few and far between without even the hope of a brutal check or fight like hockey.

Baseball is a game that takes time, time between plays, time to switch pitchers, pinch hitters, throws to first base, all without a clock. It moves at a somewhat languid pace. It is a perfect game for a leisurely afternoon but today there are a million other things going on. It used to be that baseball was the only game in town during summer but now we have a virtually unlimited supply of other entertainment options. When I was young, there was nothing on TV during the day in the summer except soap operas. We didn’t have video games. Playing baseball was a great way to fill an afternoon. I didn’t play baseball but I would shoot baskets for hours on end in the summer (when I wasn’t reading). Kids today simply have more exciting, more immediately gratifying ways to spend their free time than watching a four hour baseball game or trying to find 9 other kids who want to play baseball.

The only real hope for baseball is the increasing Latino population in the U.S. Baseball has by far the largest percentage of players from Central and South America. How many NFL players are from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela? With some 50 million Latinos in America, they are the best future market for baseball to attract but soccer is a major competitor. For most American kids, baseball is quickly going the way of the horse drawn carriage.

Luckily for me, I still have many, many days of enjoying baseball ahead of me. With a local minor league team that sits a block away from my office, I should be able to get to a number of games this year and will pay modest attention to the major leagues as it crawls through the 162 game season from now until October.

Besides, if I get bored at a game I can always play Angry Birds on my phone!

1 comment:

Charla said...

I agree that baseball is slower than football or basketball, and that's one of the big reasons it's not as popular as it used to be. And the very thing that draws me to it, its order and precision, is the very thing that bores others!
And you're so right about how hard it is to get a neighborhood game going. But there's something else involved in why people send their kids to soccer instead of baseball: in soccer, kids are constantly moving. In baseball, there's a whole lot of "just sitting" time, even if you're at bat or pitching.

I wonder how much the strikes hurt the sport, too. Made people realize they could get by without it. I don't know if that's the case because I became a fan after those strikes, but it certainly didn't do their image any good.

But I love that it's such a wonderful sign of spring when the games start. My girls (5 and 4) can't wait to go to a local AAA game this summer. And I love the fact that people are gentlemen on the field. Well, other than notable exceptions.