The Magazine

The Decline of Baseball Civilization

From the April 13, 1998 issue: Our pastime isn't what it used to be, and neither are we.

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.