Baseball in the Fall and the Fall of Baseball

Baseball fans like me have known for some time that baseball is not America’s game. But it’s worse than that….

What a great picture taken by Christopher Lucka. Winner of the Smithsonian 8th Annual Photo Contest in the Americana category.

Study this picture of a teenager playing baseball in the Bronx. Think of all the cool little things in this photo, from the shadow behind the batter to the ball sitting in the air. That makes this picture interesting, but why is this picture a contest winner? What just works about this picture?

It’s an American playing baseball.

Look at how he’s playing baseball. No helmet, no catcher, no batting glove, no infield dirt, no foul lines. It’s baseball in its purest state. Add the infield, and the bases, and the equipment, and the sunshine, and the fans, and the umpire yelling “Play Ball!”. Add the running catch in the outfield, the stolen base, the blistering fastball, the perfectly placed bunt. Add the hecklers, and the sunflower seeds, and the hot dogs. Finish it off with a walk-off hit, with the childlike euphoria of a championship, and you have the great and wonderful game. You have America’s Game.

Since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, to the era of Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, right through the times of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Larkin, baseball has been America’s beautiful game. It’s been our national pastime and our favorite sport. There has been an unexplainable and unequaled symbiosis of society and sport. Legendary players like Mickey Mantle have been revered as larger than life, and legendary plays like Kirk Gibson’s home run have become iconic American symbols.

Those days are gone.

While the Rays and Angels furiously try to scramble past the faltering Red Sox, and the Cardinals fight to stay alive and overtake the struggling Atlanta Braves, making for two of the best Wild Card races in recent memory, America is wondering how many games the Detroit Lions are going to win this year. While Matt Kemp is THIS CLOSE to a Triple Crown, the first one in 44 years, America talks about Michael Vick’s concussion. Be honest, how many people in America know what a baseball Triple Crown is? How many know who Matt Kemp is? If Kemp should succeed in capturing a a Triple Crown, and the Rays are somehow able to catch Boston,

Don't worry Boston, fewer people care than you think. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press taken from nytimes.com)

these two historic feats will be overshadowed by a major NFL injury, a ridiculous tweet, or what club Pac-Man Jones decides to shoot up. Fall should be the greatest part of the MLB season; instead, it’s the slow jog to the long awaited finish, passed along the way by the start of the NFL, NBA (not this year) and collegiate sports.

‘Back in the day’ the current events of pro baseball were followed closely by everyone, not just sports fans. While Joe DiMaggio was working towards 56 straight games with a hit, the question you asked your neighbor everyday was “Did DiMaggio get a hit today?”. Just a few years ago, while K-Rod worked toward his record of 62 saves, Americans didn’t even know K-Rod’s real name.

There are not four major sports in America. There are three. And as you will read later, it might not be long until baseball isn’t one of them.

So what happened? Don’t try to tell me the steroid era caused all of this, because it didn’t. But it certainly had something to do with it….

The Steroid Cycle

The best player of the 90’s and early 2000’s, Barry Bonds (actually if you don’t care about PEDs he is arguably the greatest player EVER) was the most talked about and most notable player in baseball. What a curse to the game. Not only was he unpopular as a player because of his link with steroids, but he was just an unpopular person, too, because of his actions towards fans and teammates. Fans lost faith in their favorite players, knowing that they might have used steroids. Big names from that era have been linked to cheating. Names like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Roger Clemens. Ken Caminiti won the NL MVP in 1996. Who? Exactly. (Actually his story is a sad one, as besides being a steroid user he used other illegal drugs and they eventually killed him).

Barry Bonds: Hero to villain. (wikimedia image)

Is it that baseball players aren’t as popular as other pro athletes? You can’t rule it out. Albert Pujols, the greatest player alive (and also arguably the greatest player ever) has 308,000 fans on Facebook, while LeBron James has 8,300,000. Jose Reyes, maybe the most explosive baseball player, has 2,000 fans, while DeSean Jackson, maybe the most explosive football player, has 139,000.

So maybe that’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s the complete picture. But I think the steroid era might have started a chain reaction. When the prime time players of the era fell from glory, kids didn’t know who should replace them. It was like baseball stars just disappeared. Suddenly they were replaced with a generation of flashy, likable, and talented athletes from other sports (it didn’t hurt that they were steroid-free). Enter the one namers: LeBron, D-Wade, Kobe, T-Mac, Vinsanity, Moss, Vick, Ochocinco, T.O., Peyton. The focus shifted from the intricate, team-oriented game of baseball to the sports in which a guy like the ones mentioned can thrive. You can describe a high flying basketball player (Richard Jefferson) as “ballin”, good luck describing a ground ball base hit guy (Ichiro) like that. Marshawn Lynch can go “beast mode” while running over Saints defenders, but can you use that phrase for Roy “Doc” Halladay, who looks more like a street department worker than a professional athlete?

When fans shifted their attention to these players, they turned their interest to those sports. Kids quit baseball before they were in junior high and turned to a sport where you can just go run into people. NFL popularity is unfathomable now, as 100 million people watch the Super Bowl and everyone has a Fantasy Football team. Tailgating is a phenomenon all its own. NBA players are at an all-time high in popularity, while baseball players struggle to find good endorsements. Ryan Howard, who should be a household name, is in the same commercial series with Justin Tuck. It also doesn’t help that there’s nothing American about a double play going from Renteria to Polanco to Cabrera. A touchdown from Rodgers to Jones sounds better. It’s nice to watch the stars of tomorrow go from college to the pros. We watched LeBron from the time he was 17 years old. People don’t like to be surprised by some guy with a foreign name from some island in the Caribbean, even if he’s a pure talent (see Hanley Ramirez).

And then, the cycle hits its most crucial and destructive point. People don’t understand the game of baseball anymore. They can’t stand the slow pace (what would we do without guys like Mark Buehrle?) because they don’t know what it is they’re waiting for. They don’t understand the rules.

Mom: Why did the runner get to go from first to second?

Dad: The pitcher balked, honey.

Mom: What’s a balk?

Dad: Um, it’s, well it’s like when the pitcher does something he’s not supposed to, I don’t really know.

And if they can’t take the slow games, they can’t take a season that lasts 162 games. By September they’re ready for football.

And not only do they not understand the rules, they don’t understand the advanced situations and intricacies of the game, which to many are what make the game so great. On an 0-2 count the pitcher is going to throw some unhittable breaking ball in the dirt, a lefty will come in to face just one lefty batter late in the game, a batter will be walked to set up a double play, but not if it’s Chase Utley because he’s followed by Ryan Howard. If someone hasn’t been raised with the game, it’s one of the most difficult sports (along with cricket) to learn.

Non-baseball fans also don’t realize a good play when they see it. How has Ben Revere’s insane catch already disappeared while we’ll probably see DeSean Jackson’s punt return a million more times (I realize Jackson’s punt return was more important). They don’t realize how difficult that catch is.

Sadly, this is probably the most notable baseball player sponsorship out there. (articles.philly.com)

They can understand football and basketball though. While they may not understand all of the rules of football, they understand that you need to move the ball by running or throwing and you need to stop the ball by tackling people. They love the fact that you can combine violence and sport. Basketball? Put the ball in the basket. Dribble if you have the ball. Don’t tackle anyone. Any questions? Play ball.

Baseball diehards who love the game, who check scores during the school day, who love to just play a game of catch will always be there, but we’re about to see them switch roles with fans who used to have that persona. A population not native to the United States, but one that is growing every day. Baseball fans are going to switch places with soccer fans.

The Rise of Soccer

Remember those kids who lost interest in baseball? Remember the ones who stopped playing it during the summer? Want to know what sport they played instead?

Soccer.

For years the rest of the world was consumed by the sport while Americans yawned and turned their attention elsewhere. American soccer was going nowhere. Sure there was always that guy in the office wearing the Manchester City scarves and following every game of the Premier League, but wasn’t that usually the nerdy guy that kind of gave everyone else the creeps, maybe just a little? And I’m sure there was that guy on campus decked out in Barcelona gear, but he was a little out there too. Guess what: those guys were cool before everyone else.

That lost generation of baseball fans started playing soccer, drawn by the simplicity of shooting a ball into a net. All that generation needed was the perfect storm to take their interest to another level. It wasn’t going to come from MLS, as American soccer leagues/players still have not caught up with the world. It came from the 2010 World Cup. As young American soccer fans watched the best players in the world compete, they saw what their sport could be. Even those who formerly scoffed at the sport took notice. Soccermania swept through high school and college students like a firestorm. Everyone started to buy soccer jerseys, kids picked their favorite international players and teams, and FIFA Soccer is closing in on Madden as the most popular sports video game. FIFA 11 had sold 15 million copies as of June 30th. That’s more than Halo 3 sold in its first year.

(wikipedia image)

At least where I live, high school kids care more about Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi than they do about baseball stars like Jimmy Rollins and Felix Hernandez. All the American soccer world needs is an American star to call their own, and maybe another strong showing in the World Cup, and soccer may send baseball to the same fate as hockey: a loyal following of those who know the game, but no real national recognition.

So what is to become of baseball? Will it return to its former glory? Or will it fade away to nothing like boxing? Will it take hold of a new generation like Call of Duty? Or will it be like Mario and grow old with the people who played it?

I don’t need it to be America’s game again. I just hope my grandson will want to play catch with me.

Am I totally nuts? Is baseball just as strong as ever? Let me know! Like, comment, SUBSCRIBE!

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6 thoughts on “Baseball in the Fall and the Fall of Baseball

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