Is baseball dying?
Until about two generations ago, baseball was our national pastime. It was a game loved by both young and old alike. We were inspired by baseball giants with names like Ruth, Robinson, Williams, Musial, Mays, Mantle and many others. They were role models to the young and many boys dreamed of being one of them. The game, its players, strategy, and execution were endless subjects for discussion. If the team you are rooting for was in the pennant race, it was a good summer. Fathers taught their sons the game and more often than not the son grew to love it and passed that love down to his sons. Yes, there were other sports, but none of them had the popularity of baseball.
Now, TV ratings for the sport that used to be our national pastime are way down and this slow, deliberate, thinking man's game is not very popular with the younger generation.
When once ball fields and vacant lots were always occupied by young ballplayers playing pickup games, today those fields are unoccupied except when organized teams are using them. I can remember the great summers of my youth in which I had a baseball glove on my hand all day and I was never far from a pickup game or someone who wanted to play catch.
The game is still popular, but many of the serious fans are older. In my opinion (and the opinions of many experts) a generation from now there will not be enough younger fans to replace them. This piece examines some of the reasons for baseballs current crisis and what need he done to make the game strong for the coming generations.
One big reason baseball is declining is very simple. Where once baseball had a near monopoly on the interests of youth, today it must compete with the internet, video games movies and other sports which that have a greater appeal to the young. Add that to the fact that today's youth seem to have much shorter attention spans than their parents and grandparents and you can see why a slow, methodical, and cerebral game like baseball would be boring to them. But it doesn't seem that Major League Baseball has made the effort to appeal to a new generation of young people who are different than any generation that has come before.
Other major sports leagues have made efforts to constantly improve their game and to appeal to young people. A perfect example is the National Football League. The NFL does not hesitate to give the fans what they want and make a more exciting game. To get more passing and scoring plays, league officials have modified the rules by which the defense can stop the offense, thus allowing a greater advantage to the offense. In fact, during each off-season the NFL Rules Committee meets to discuss rule changes which would open up the game and otherwise improve it and make it better for fans. One such innovation which came out of the rules committee was to use instant replay as a way of correcting incorrect official rulings. (Granted, the three other major sports leagues use instant replay but on a much smaller scale). Instant replay challenges have become an integral part of the game.
Not all football's efforts take place on the field. The league is involved in community outreach programs and has two television networks. One, the NFL Network features highlights and games as well as commentary, documentaries and coverage of the annual College Draft. The RedZone Network, a concession to those with short attention spans and a boon to those with fantasy teams, broadcasts only on Sundays during the football season and shows only scoring and other exciting plays.
Baseball, more than any other sport has a real sense of history. The belief is that baseball is linked to the past and that the present players and teams are playing the same game as the stars that came before. It is believed that to change the game would break that link and somehow lessen the achievements of the past. (That is why the recent steroid aided hitting records are looked at with disdain by baseball purists).
The fact that baseball has a great sense of history that adds to the allure of the game should not and can not keep it from appealing to a new generation of fans. When the NFL changes rules to allow a more wide open game and more scoring, they are not thinking of the achievements of those who came before. They're only trying to make a better game today. Baseball should be a little more like football in that aspect.
It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that baseball abandoned its ties to the past in order to appeal to this generation of fans. Baseball’s connections with history are part of the reason why big fans like myself love the game. I believe small changes can be made to the game which will allow it to appeal more to the casual fan and make it a better game.
Listed below are some of the problems this game has and some of the possible solutions:
It has been said that the slow pace of the game is one of the major reasons people find baseball boring. This is nothing new. Baseball has always had that flaw. But enforcing the rule that requires a pitcher to throw a pitch every 12 seconds may quicken the game is a good start. There is already a rule on the books that says if there are no runners on base, the pitcher has 12 seconds to throw a pitch. The umpire is required to call a ball if a pitch is not thrown in that time period. I have never seen this called and I doubt if any umpire would make that call. Baseball has paid lip service to having this rule enforced. If the umpires refused to call it,a "play clock" like the one used in football and basketball can be placed behind home plate.
Leveling the Playing Field and Salary Caps
Baseball’s greatest inequity exists between franchises in large markets against those in smaller markets. Teams in Boston, New York, Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles can afford to pay their superstars and sign high price free agents that may make them competitive every year. Teams in cities like Pittsburgh, Houston, Milwaukee and Phoenix struggle to stay competitive because they don’t have the resources or income of those other cities. It's the classic story of the “haves” versus the “have nots”.
The easy answer would be revenue-sharing. That is, giving a portion of the income of the higher earning teams to the lower earning teams. But this would be unfair to the “haves”. Another, more realistic answer may be a hard salary cap. Every team is limited to the same amount it can spend on players salaries. Hard salary caps have been used effectively for years in the NHL, NBA, and the NFL and have helped maintain parity among all teams. In fact, because all television contracts in the NFL are negotiated by the league,(something that would be unrealistic in the MLB) the football league has had revenue-sharing since the early 1960s. That is why a team from Green Bay, Wisconsin can be consistently among the league's elite teams with teams from New York, New England and Baltimore.
More Hitting and scoring
In 1998, Major League Baseball had one of its most exciting seasons when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs challenged Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Fans everywhere followed this exciting race on a daily basis. When it was over, McGwire had 70 home runs and Sosa finished second in the majors with a whopping 66 home runs. This was only the beginning. A few seasons later Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit 72 home runs and in 2007 he finished his playing days with an all-time record of 762 homers. Not only were the stars hitting the ball all over the field, but so were the average ballplayers.
In the early days of the last decade, it became evident that certain players were using steroids or other PED's to become bigger, stronger and to be able to hit the baseball a greater distance or throw it harder.
The fans loved seeing the ball hit longer and farther. The owners who may have suspected that certain players used PEDs ignored the scandal because the attendance was way up and the players union was loath to admit that their players were on the juice because record high contracts were being signed by its players who were smacking the ball all over the yard.
Public and government pressure forced MLB and the Players Union to clean up the game and rid it of steroids. While it is still a work in progress, Major League Baseball has one of the most stringent anti drug policies of all the organized sports. Still the fact remains that most people would rather see an 11-10 game, than a 2-1 pitchers duel. Good hitting has always been more popular than good pitching. The owners and officials in the league office know it.
How would a greater advantage be given to the hitters over the pitchers? First, forcing the pitchers to adhere to throwing a pitch every 12 seconds may help the batters. Lowering the pitchers mound may help also. Pitches tend to come in flatter and are easier to hit.
As I mentioned earlier, if baseball is to thrive in the future, a new generation of fans needs to be nurtured. Every year experts complain that the games start late and end very late (sometime, the next day). Young fans are unable to stay up and watch the most important games of the year. A very simple solution would be to start the playoff games in the afternoon or earlier in the evening so younger fans (and many older ones) can stay up until the end of the game. While this has been discussed, the games are still ending up way after young people have gone to bed.
The improvements that I have mentioned here may help the game grow into the 21st century, but baseball may never reach the high level of popularity it possessed in the 1940s and 50s. Will these changes be made soon? Likely not. To start with, the players Union would have to agree to many of these changes and they are not amiable to any change that may hurt salaries. The players union was a roadblock to baseball investigating and punishing players that used steroids and they have objected to and prevented the implementation of a hard salary cap. Add the fact that the game is run by stubborn purists like the current Commissioner and the average fan can see why the game is in trouble. Hopefully, the next Commissioner of the MLB will be an open minded person who appreciates and reveres baseball’s past but has enough guts to make the changes that will bring it into the future.