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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Baseball's Problem?

I saw a stat in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that offered that interest in baseball has dropped off 26% in the past 16 years.

And then I started to think why that is, despite great interest in my home town of Philadelphia.

1. Kids are playing soccer more than they're playing baseball. True, although as my good friend Jeff from Manhattan says, "Soccer is the sport of the future in the U.S. and always will be." That is, until we get the future Derek Roses and Chris Pauls playing soccer, and until we stop training the players like robots and let them improvise like Brazilians.

2. It's hard to play pick-up baseball. You need too many kids, kids are overscheduled, etc. True, it is, but there are derivative reasons for this that go beyond "baseball is boring; there's not enough action," although my 11 year-old told me that after a particularly uneventful rec league season this past year.

3. Dads act like maniacs in baseball, taking the fun out of it. Oh boy, here we go. This is very true. I ran into a friend on Saturday night who coaches his eleven year-old's travel team. He didn't want to coach; he played college baseball well at a high level and had his fill. Friends told him he'd end up coaching; he said he wouldn't. But he did, and for the reason his friends advised, "You'll coach not because you'll really want to, but to protect your son from the other dads out there." Touche. That's precisely what happened, as the landscape is littered with wannabe Tony LaRussas, stage fathers, dads who get no joy out of their jobs and have too much time on their hands, etc., and not necessarily dads who have any training, experience or talent at coaching. And, they behave badly, by hectoring umpires (including teenage kids in the rec leagues, whose parents come to protect them), by fudging pitch counts so that their stars can pitch longer, by only letting their kids play the good positions, and by stacking travel teams with their friends' kids and not necessarily the best players. This behavior leads to attrition, serious attrition -- the dads take all the fun out of the game, and otherwise decent athletes will stake their fortunes to games that the dads have less of an emotional connection to, like soccer or lacrosse (unless, of course, there are dads who played those games overly involved, but the chances of that for this generation are less likely than they will be in future generations).

4. The pitching is a variable. Either your kid will walk too much or not be able to hit the very mature kid who might top out or flame out in high school but who, at this age, looks like Roy Halladay. That's different from soccer or basketball, where more kids get a chance to touch the ball and make something happen. Let's face it, it's very hard to hit a baseball, perhaps the most difficult feat in all of sports. That takes away the fun.

5. The lack of a salary cap is killing baseball. Imagine NASCAR if all the cars didn't have similar specs -- the guy with the most money to build the best car will win most of the races because his car not only will go faster, it will handle better at higher speeds. No one wants to be the next James Hylton, a guy who raced for years and perhaps had one top-10 finish to his name. Likewise, what's in it for the kids who live in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and other places that have had losing season after losing season, haven't had the discipline of the Twins or the creativity of the A's? Why should they care at all?

6. There is more competition. The Game of the Week on NBC used to be a big deal. Now, every sport seemingly is on all the time -- there is much more competition for baseball. Also, any sport should take note of the declines of horse racing (because gambling is everywhere now and not just at the track), boxing (corruption finally weighed it down) and tennis (where there seemingly is little interest except at the majors, perhaps because the equipment is so advanced that smurfs can rocket serves at 140 mph and there is much less art in the game than there was 30 years ago). Dinosaurs were big and powerful and became extinct; all sports should take note (even football, which, while riding high, is so physically brutal that unless things change in terms of protecting players, why would anyone want to risk permanent brain damage at 30 for the glory of playing in the Horseshoe, in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus and the like?).

At any rate, I wouldn't be happy if I were an owner with that statistic, and I'd try to do something about it.

Especially if I were benefitting from the golden geese in Boston, the Bronx and Philadelphia, among other places.


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