Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tales of Baseball's Demise Have Been Wildly Exaggerated

Jonathan Mahler wrote a piece recently for the New York Times called "Is the Game Over?' that has received entirely way too much attention.  The article's thesis is that while baseball is profitable and its games are well-attended, it no longer occupies the primary place in American culture it once did.  Well, duh.  I've been reading statements like this for the past quarter century or so, and they are hard to deny.

It is indisputable that the NFL is now America's primary spectator sport; fifteen million people tuned in to see an abortion of a game on Monday between the Giants and Vikings.  People just don't watch the NFL draft, they will even spend some of the few precious hours they have on the earth watching the players do tests in the draft combine.  The Super Bowl is the highest rated event on television every year.

While I 've watched pro football for as long as I've been watching television, I must say I am a little flummoxed by the current level of the game's popularity.  The ball is in play for only eleven minutes of an average NFL game, and for less than the running time of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"in pigskin action fans must endure over an hour of commercials.  The games seem to last longer than ever, mostly due to the need to sell lite beer.  Great moments on the field are immediately followed by interminable instant replay challenges.  We are also more aware than ever of the human costs of pro football, and how the storied gladiators of the gridiron will often end up brain damaged, suicidal, or physically incapacitated.  The more fluid, beautiful, and exciting game of basketball is no challenge to football's supremacy, but if it hasn't eclipsed basketball in popularity yet, it likely soon will.

However, I am not here to diss pro football or praise basketball, but to point to the less obvious reasons why baseball will continue to be healthy and should not be considered a sport in decline.  In the first place, a lot of people go to the games.  No team in the majors drew fewer than 1.5 million fans this year, but thirty years ago nine teams (about a third of the majors) failed to reach that mark.  I keep hearing complaints, mainly justified, that tickets just keep getting pricier.  However, more and more folks are coming to games.  The reasons are pretty obvious.  Going to the ballpark is a great experience, one that is more enjoyable than going to a football or basketball game.  It's just a great, relaxing place to be on a summer's day, and cheaper than other pro sports.

In fact, the timing of baseball's season is one secret to its long-term health.  During the height of summer, from mid-June until early September, it's pretty much the only game in town.  It dominates the time of year when people have the most leisure time, and most desire to go out and have a good time.  Baseball and summer are practically inseparable, and as long as there are summer days in this country and a ballpark to go to, baseball will always be fine.

Fun in the summer sun will always draw in the casual fans, but as far as the more devoted fanatics go, those who care about baseball care about it more than the devotees of football and basketball.  Just look at the number of books about baseball compared to other sports, the arguments about it, the numerous analysts using their brilliant mathematical minds to compile statistics.  I do know of NFL fans who truly care about the game, its intricacies, and its history, but they are a decided minority.  Most people who watch the NFL are more interested in big hits than in x's and o's.  There are plenty of folks I know who can dissect a playbook, but there's a much bigger percentage of baseball fans who know sabremetrics.  Its language has even entered into the musty realms of the broadcast booth.

Part of why baseball matters more to the people it matters to is the sport's unmatchable historical legacy.  That legacy gives it an aura of meaning that other sports lack.  Even with the decline in baseball's importance, Barry Bonds' eclipse of Hank Aaron's home run record mattered more than any record that exists in either basketball or football.  Accusations of steroid use led to Congressional hearings, the concussion problem in football has not prompted something similar.  This is the case because baseball still has a special status, and its supposed purity is still a matter of public concern.  Nobody really cares about football records, nor do they bother to hold its behavior to a high standard.

So yes, baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL, and maybe the NBA, too.  That well-established fact should not fool us into thinking that baseball is somehow irrelevent, or entering decline.  The World Series will never get the Super Bowl's ratings, but no moment in any Super Bowl, past, present or future, will ever mean as much as Boston breaking the Curse of the Bambino, Bill Mazerowski's seventh game homer, or Bobby Thompson's "shot heard 'round the world."  That's hardly a sign of irrelevance.

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