Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2019

Alive And Well At The Grassroots

When writing about the Great Game it’s become not just acceptable, but almost mandatory, to focus on the problems besetting the sport and to wonder if baseball is doomed. If not headed for outright extinction, surely in our modern world where attention spans are increasingly measured in mere seconds, this slow-moving sport will soon fill the role of a marginal pastime rather than the national one that was its place for generations.

Consider a sampling of opinions along such lines. A story in a New York newspaper with the lead “That baseball is dying hard…was proved yesterday.” Another about the Yankees routing the Athletics pointing out that even those with a stake in the outcome couldn’t be made to watch, “(T)he A’s manager didn’t stay around to see the Sunday slaughter.” An unsparing analysis of the root cause of the problem, “Mostly, however, baseball is succumbing to time. The game is getting to be outdated by other forms of entertainment which are more exciting, more accessible, and – in many cases – cheaper.” Or a lament about the reliance on home runs by too many teams suggesting that “In some circles there is a sharp suspicion that baseball may be riding a good horse to death, carrying a good thing too far. They fear the public may become sated with the home run just as it would become indifferent to football that offered nothing but one long touchdown pass after another and no running.”

Together these reports might be considered as an emerging consensus on the health of the Great Game, but for one crucial truth. The stories are not contemporaneous. The report from Gotham was about a game between the Yankees and Senators played at the Polo Grounds during World War I. The absent A’s manager, his team being the Philadelphia Athletics, was Connie Mack in 1936. The lament about time passing baseball by was written in 1955, and the complaint about too many long balls was published more than half a century ago, just one year after Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record, long before any current major leaguer was born.

Of course there is no shortage of current opinion along these same lines, but before calling for last rites to be said over this supposedly expiring sport, it is worth recalling that predictions of baseball’s demise are neither new nor novel. Which is not to say that the Great Game in 2019 is free from challenges. The typical contest does take too long, largely because the reliance on situational relief pitchers often means that action slows to a crawl through the middle and late innings. Once a novelty, extreme defensive shifts are now commonplace, and batters have responded by altering their swings to lift the ball over the defense and into the cheap seats. Home runs are way up, but so are strikeouts, with the principal casualty being balls in play and the traditional action of base running strategy and everything from the hit and run to double plays.

The economics of baseball are also a major issue, with the players and their union in a foul mood after multiple off seasons of the owners altering the landscape of free agency and thus reneging on the agreement implicit in the current collective bargaining compact. While superstars are still assured of big paydays, everyday players can no longer look forward to being rewarded as 30-year-old free agents for their years of steady performance as twenty-somethings under team control.

With the current major league schedule within a week or so of its halfway point, it seems likely that attendance will be down again this year, continuing a slow but generally steady downward drift that began more than a decade ago. In 2018 total attendance at big league ballparks fell below 70 million for the first time since 2003, and was well short of 2007’s high water mark just shy of 80 million paying customers.

Yet revenues for almost every team remain strong, thanks to the diversity of income streams and lucrative regional television contracts that are now the norm. It’s also clear that those who run the Great Game are well aware that there are problems in need of fixing. Modest rule changes impacting pace of play have been implemented, with more rigorous ones waiting in the wings. MLB and the Players Association have also begun preliminary talks around a new CBA, an especially encouraging sign since the current contract doesn’t have to be renegotiated until the end of 2021.

But the surest sign that baseball isn’t going away is seen by looking elsewhere than at the thirty stadiums that are homes to big league teams. The most interesting sentence is all those old reports cited above was this one near the top of the dire screed from the early days of the Cold War, “We predict that within 25 years there’ll be no organized baseball except the major leagues, if even they’re in existence then.”

That pessimistic journalist could not have been more wrong. With the first year player draft complete, all 240 minor league teams with official ties to MLB are in action. From AAA squads playing the game just a shade below big league quality, on down to short-season rookie leagues where hope is the primary fuel that keeps each player going, these teams play in big cities and many, many small towns, bringing the pleasure of the game to fans who may never set foot in a big league stadium. By the time all these minor league teams finish play in early September, it’s a virtual certainty that for the fifteenth year in a row more than 40 million fans will have paid to watch baseball not to see a Trout or a Harper or a Kershaw, but simply for the joy of the game.

That long list of officially affiliated teams doesn’t count the eight independent leagues nor the more than three score collegiate summer leagues, where college kids who have gone undrafted play as amateurs. For all the many attractions on Cape Cod, from miles of sandy beaches to eclectic Provincetown and historic Hyannis, games of the Cape Cod Summer Baseball League remain a must-see for tourists and locals alike.

The strength of this timeless appeal can be seen right now in Omaha, where the College World Series is taking place. As this is written Louisville and Mississippi State are facing off in the last quarterfinal contest, with the winner joining Michigan, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt in a collegiate final four that gets much less attention than its basketball counterpart but generated no less passion for the thousands of fans who have packed TD Ameritrade Park since the Series began last weekend.

From Omaha to Staten Island to Round Rock, from the Durham Bulls to the Sacramento River Cats, the roots and the future of the Great Game remain strong, out there on every single real-life field of dreams.

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