The Magazine

THE DECLINE OF BASEBALL CIVILIZATION

Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Tom Boswell, sportswriter and baseball fan extraordinaire, once wrote a book called Why Time Begins on Opening Day. And so it does. Life begins anew not with the first robin or the vernal equinox, but with the first pitch -- this year thrown out charmingly at Camden Yards by a former pigtail league phenom, now Health and Welfare honcho, Donna Shalala.


But time begins on Opening Day for fewer and fewer people. Those whose life rhythms are attuned to baseball's -- like Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, whose term for the months between the last out of the World Series and the first pitch of Opening Day is simply "the void" -- are dwindling. We are an aging cohort. Like Russian Communists, we'll all be gone in another decade or two, and who will carry on after us?


The problem is not just declining attendance or TV ratings. Attendance is down 11 percent from the '94 strike year, but it is slowly recovering, and will tick up again when new stadiums open soon in Milwaukee, Seattle, Detroit, Houston, and San Francisco.


And yes, the ratings drop is quite stark. The '97 All-Star game was the lowest-rated All-Star game ever broadcast, and the June 21 Fox Game of the Week drew fewer viewers than the competing women's (!) basketball game. Nonetheless, low ratings can be in part attributed to the ratings decline for all sporting events, as viewership is spread to cable, video rentals, and movies-on-demand.


No, the real problem with baseball is the decline in interest. Nobody talks about it. At the water cooler, in bars, on sports-talk radio, the chat is about the NFL draft, NBA rookies, and the NCAA finals. The "hot stove league" is a concept so hoary that most youngsters don't even know what it is, or was. (Ans.: Baseball talk during winter months.)


The lack of interest is reflected in the newspaper coverage. The New York Times used to plaster Opening Day coverage all over its Sunday sports section. This year, the top half of the page was devoted to the women's college basketball finals. Fifty years ago, some big-city papers would run the line score of the home team's game on the front page. Today you need a microscope and a road map to find baseball box scores.


How little do people talk and care about baseball? Consider this: Ever heard of a game in which the home team was down by six runs with two outs, two strikes, in the bottom of the ninth, and came back to win? Such an epochal comeback -- statistics on this type are not kept, but in 40 years of following baseball I've never heard of a more improbable comeback -- is the stuff of legend. Had it happened in, say, Casey Stengel's day, it would by now be celebrated in song. Well, it happened last year, on September 13. Shea stadium, Mets vs. Montreal. The local papers carried the story, but practically no one else. I read about it on the inside pages of the Washington Post sports section, where it earned a five-line paragraph. I saw nothing more about it. I'll bet not a single baseball fan you know has even heard about that game.


This neglect by the media is nothing more than a reflection of popular taste. Fifty years ago, the three top sports in America were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. Horse racing has been displaced by legalized gambling and casinos. Boxing has descended to the point where the average person can't name the heavyweight champ. And baseball is living on its memories. In fact, the NBC Game of the Week for many years used to begin with the slogan, "The Tradition is Here, the Memories are Waiting." The game had not yet begun and it was already slotted for memory. Adrift in the age of TV, overtaken by football and basketball, baseball lives in, and off, nostalgia.


Sports Illustrated promotes subscriptions by offering free videos. Its basketball video features Michael Jordan. Its football video features Super Bowl highlights. The baseball video offers film of the game's golden years with grainy black and white footage going all the way back to Babe Ruth. The marketers know: It has become a game of the past.

 

II


Why? The most obvious and important reason is, of course, television. If you listen to a football or basketball game on radio, you really don't know what is happening. There is too much going on. Baseball, with its discrete and isolated action, with its long pauses for reflection and reverie, is the quintessential radio sport.


Its decline begins with television. It simply cannot compete on screen with the spectacles of basketball and football. These are fast, clock-driven games, perfectly attuned to the quick-cut world of video. Perhaps even more important is the size and speed of the ball. In basketball and football, it is large and easily visible. It also travels at speeds that the human eye can apprehend on a small screen. Not so in baseball. Baseball is 90 percent pitching (the other half is hitting, as Yogi Berra might say), and pitching is notoriously hard to follow.


Even harder to follow is the ball coming off the bat. Mark McGwire hit a grand slam on Opening Day last Tuesday. How does the biggest play of that game appear on screen? A large man swings a bat. Then cut to a sea of fans in left field looking upward for a speck that is entirely invisible to the TV viewer. (Hockey suffers from the same problem: small puck, high speeds, low ratings.)


But that can't be the whole explanation. After all, we have been in the television age for forty years, and baseball's decline, while noticeable, was not precipitous until the last few years. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it enjoyed something of a revival, with high attendance, fan interest, and renewed cultural vogue (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, books by Roger Angell and George Will, Ken Burns's PBS documentary, etc.).


Then came the '94 strike. It was a seminal event. Not just because it killed the season, disrupted the rhythms, and showed how easy it is to live without baseball. But because it showed fans that the owners and players cared so much less about the game -- its statistics, its records, even the World Series -- than they did. It mocked the fan. After all, it is ridiculous enough to care deeply whether some total stranger making $ 8 million a year hits 61 homers or bats .400. It is even more ridiculous when you care about it more than the player does.


Beyond the shock of the strike is the inexorable erosion that lies in baseball's demographics. The fans are getting older. It is old fogies like me who still care about the game. Fewer kids watch it. Fewer still play it. What was the decisive demographic of the '96 presidential election? Soccer moms. A generation ago, soccer moms were to be found in Padua, not Peoria.


Part of this erosion, like most of baseball's woes, is self-inflicted. Baseball has made it increasingly hard for kids to establish a bond with the game. Generally this association happens in two ways. One is to watch the great players and retain indelible memories of magic moments. The barons of baseball have done their best to make this physically impossible. Kids today have no memories of dramatic baseball events because most of these events happen far past their bedtimes. The NFL puts its Super Bowl on at 6 P.M. so that even in the East it is over by early evening. That's about when World Series games are getting started.


How many people actually saw the most dramatic baseball moment of the last 25 years, Carlton Fisk's home run that won in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, the one where he bounces up and down like a rabbit and coaxes the ball to stay fair? He hit it at 12:34 A.M. Everybody has seen it on the highlights and promotional films. But who saw it live?


Last year's thrilling extra-inning seventh game of the World Series ended after midnight. Baseball is a slow uncoiling game. Its tension rises ever so subtly. Its great dramatic moments inevitably occur late. For the last generation, ever since baseball went to night ball for the showcase All-Star and Series games, the drama has occurred past any normal person's, let alone child's, bedtime.

 

III


The other way kids bond with teams is to follow them day to day, year to year. They establish a connection with a great player or star who carries the identity of the team (and the game) with him into the child's consciousness. This is the role of a Michael Jordan or a John Elway (who, tellingly, was drafted both by the Baltimore Colts and the New York Yankees, and chose the sport of the future over the sport of the past). It is still the role of a Cal Ripken, and helps to account for the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are one of the few healthy franchises in baseball and one of the only teams that consistently sells out its stadium.


But Ripken, a star who has played with the same team for all 17 years of his career, is the rare exception. The great players now change cities and uniforms with carpetbagging alacrity and barely a look back. Think of players who are not just stars but superstars: Orel Hershiser, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Jose Canseco. Does even a real fan know who they play for today? (Ans.: San Francisco, Tampa, Minnesota, Toronto.)


Payroll pressures in baseball's widely unregulated market -- basketball and football have salary caps, baseball has total financial anarchy -- have made it almost impossible for the small-market teams to keep big stars. Albert Belle of the big-market Chicago White Sox makes more than the entire 25-man roster of the Montreal Expos combined. Result? The game's stars are abruptly bought and sold in response not to teams' competitive needs but to their financial needs.


Just last week, on the day before Opening Day, the impecunious Cincinnati Reds traded away their top pitcher for a young, cheap prospect. They sent him to Cleveland, a team rolling in money because of the success of its stadium. Said Reds manager, Jack McKeon, "This is the first time in my career as a major league manager that I've lost my Opening Day pitcher."


Cleveland, like the rich Yankees and Orioles and Braves, has been collecting all-stars with cash, practically assuring entry into the playoffs. Last year, the four remaining teams playing for the American and National League pennants ranked in the top five in total payroll. (The other big- wallet team, the New York Yankees, made the playoffs, too, but lost in the first round.) Meanwhile, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Montreal have to sell any player who achieves stardom just to keep from going broke.


Baseball players used to change teams through trades. But never did the major players, the anchors of the teams, the ones the kids idolized, change teams so often and so wildly. This buying and selling of talent breaks all ties to the local fans. It was most dramatically, almost comically illustrated by the Florida Marlins last year. An expansion team hungry for success, it spent $ 89 million to buy up the best free agents on the planet. Sure enough, it won itself a World Series. Then the owner, Blockbuster Video founder H. Wayne Huizenga, found that attendance was still down and the Marlins were hemorrhaging money, losing $ 4 million in 1997 and $ 30 million over the five-year history of the team. Solution? Sell off all the stars he had just bought. On Opening Day this year, half the players on the World Series squad were gone. The team is unrecognizable.


It's one thing to buy the World Series. It's another to rent it for a year.


In the old days, the wanton, financially driven dismantling of great teams was not unheard of, but it was certainly rare and vigorously discouraged by the force of public opinion and by decree of the commissioner. In Boston, Harry Frazee is still reviled 80 years after selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance his Broadway production of No No Nanette. Connie Mack is notorious for having twice -- in 1914 and in 1933 -- sold off the stars of his pennant-winning teams (including Hall of Famer Al Simmons) to keep his shoestring Philadelphia Athletics operation going.


Charley Finley, the owner of the Oakland A's in the early '70s, was not just eccentric -- he had a mule for a mascot and once installed a mechanical rabbit that popped out of the ground near home plate with balls for the umpire -- but stingy. In June 1976, he tried to sell two of his star players to the rich Red Sox and Yankees for cash. The commissioner stopped the trade cold "in the best interest of baseball." But there is no commissioner now, no one to stop such fan-betraying deals, no one to look after the best interests of baseball.

 

IV


Is baseball reaching the end of the road? A few more self-inflicted wounds and it may truly be remembered as a game of the 20th century: R.I.P. Major League Baseball, 1901-1999. The owners are, for example, still not aware how they squandered one of the great gifts baseball was ever handed, Michael Jordan. Jordan, the biggest sports star in the world, decided five years ago that instead of playing in the NBA finals, he would rather ride the buses and play AA baseball for the Birmingham Barons. At a time when baseball was losing its appeal, particularly among kids, to the glamour of football and basketball, Jordan's tribute to the game offered baseball an unexpected windfall of prestige.


Jordan's methodical and almost painful retraining as a baseball player might even have given him a shot at the major leagues, an event that would have electrified the sports world. Instead, he found himself in the spring of '95, as the baseball owners were about to bring on replacement minor league players to break the players' strike, caught in a bitter labor dispute. Rather than become a strikebreaker, he quit. He then returned his star power to basketball, which now thrives as never before.


Another attempt by the owners at self-inflicted mayhem failed mercifully last year. The acting commissioner, Bud Selig, proposed abolishing the American and National Leagues -- brand names with loyalties going back a hundred years -- and realigning the major league teams on a regional basis. At the last minute, this loony proposal was voted down. It will come up again, however. One must never underestimate the owners' capacity to injure the game.


Assuming, however, that nothing egregious of this sort happens in the near future, baseball will hobble along, enjoying a quiet senescence. Indeed, it will probably enjoy a bump in popularity in two or three years. That is when new stadiums will be completed in some of the small markets, and there will be a predictable increase in excitement and attendance as fans turn out for the park, if only secondarily for the game.


For a glimpse of the future, consider the Arizona Diamondbacks, the expansion team that just joined the National League. Its new stadium in Phoenix features a swimming pool in right-center field from which you can watch the game submerged. We've come a long way from Ebbetts Field.


At some stadiums you can now watch games while dining in a restaurant. Or, if you prefer, from the window of your hotel room -- built into the outfield wall of the Skydome in Toronto. This led some years ago to the arrest of two patrons who left their curtains open while making whoopee in front of 50,000 fans who got to see more than just a baseball game.


Indeed, "more than just a baseball game" is what the owners are counting on to attract customers and save the sport. This dining and sleeping and soaking while watching baseball is part of what is called "the malling of baseball." The attraction becomes not so much the game as the experience of the stadium - - the amenities, the novelty shops, the batting cages, the sports museums, the outfield jacuzzi.


Purists frown on this, but the purists had better shape up. They are a dying breed. If the malls that masquerade as stadiums can keep the game going for another 20 years, that will be fine with me. I'll bathe at home, thank you, but at least there will be a game to go to.




Contributing editor Charles Krauthammer is a former good-field, no-hit shortstop at Herzliah high school in Montreal.