Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Old Series: Does baseball need to be saved?

America is tuning out the World Series...does it matter?

The Old Series: Does baseball need to be saved?

It's just a '60s kind of week around here, so you'll have to go with it. From the agony of the JFK assassination to the ecstasy of baseball. The first baseball game I remember ever watching was between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, the same two teams that meet tonight in baseball's 109th Wold Series

This was a different World Series in a different time -- 1967, 46 years ago this month. I was eight, and I didn't follow the sport because my parents weren't big fans, but their best friend Steve von Molnar had placed a big bet (by "big" I'm thinking $50...this was 1967, after all) on the Sox and we had just bought this newfangled contraption, a color TV, so insisted on coming over. "C'mon, Yaz!", he'd yell in a deep baritone. I was hooked. I must have watched 5,000 baseball games since then, probably more.

Those kind of fuzzy, Polaroid-sepia memories are what makes baseball great -- and some say is what's killing it. It's an old man story. I'm an old man. And baseball is for old men. If your don't believe me, read this:

So here’s a shocking statistic: The median age of the 2012 World Series television viewer was 53.4, the highest in more than 20 years, and probably of all time, according to Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.

In case you’re wondering, the median viewer of 2013 NBA championships was just 41. And the NFL? Everybody watches the Super Bowl, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of meaningful data. But so far this season, the median age of prime-time professional football viewers is under 45.

Since I'm 54, I guess I'm just your median baseball fan -- that's scary. Frank Fitzpartrick in the Inquirer had a piece that touched on the same theme, that those of us of a certain age -- especially those of us old enough to remember when World Series games were played on weekday afternoons and America came to a stop -- can feel the palpable loss of buzz around the Fall Classic.

Ironically, I think the golden era of the World Series ended the last time the Red Sox and Cardinals met in the World Series of 2004, the year of Curt Schilling and the bloody sock. There was such a run of amazing baseball -- 2000's Subway Series, Mariano Rivera's blown save in 2001, "Bartman" and Aaron Boone in 2003 and the Sox's 2004 comeback and the heyday of the Yankees (playing in America's media capital, which matters) -- that it papered over the problems. The problems of being a pastoral and sometimes cerebral game in a violent, made-for-TV world.

In 2005, the Chicago White Sox (huh?) swept the Houston Astros (huh?) and all of a sudden you could hear a pin drop. The Phillies World Series win in 2008 is recalled here like a sacred Communion text, but most of America would have preferred root canal to watching "rude" Philadelphia beat the no-names from Tampa Bay. Nowadays, a routine Sunday night football game might get higher TV ratings from lovers of helmet-to-helmet collisions than the Fall Classic draws.

Jonathan Mahler, author of the classic baseball (and other stuff) book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and of the above piece about the shrinking World Series TV ratings, thinks that young people will never watch the Sport Formerly Known as the National Pastime unless they change the rules:

Modernization worked for the NBA, which adopted the three-point line for the 1979-80 season with the simple intention of making basketball more fun to watch. Baseball, for all of the mythology surrounding it, is really no different. We like to pretend that the rules of the game are engraved on a stone tablet somewhere. In fact, they were never intended as religious doctrine; they were supposed to provide the framework for a form of self-amusement and public entertainment. If the entertainment is no longer marketable -- at least to the audience you want to reach -- it may be time to change them.

While I remain a big fan of Mahler, I couldn't agree less. As even his own piece notes, by almost every other measure, baseball has never been more popular. Revenue has gone from $1 billion to $8 billion, not that far beyond football and its over-sized TV ratings. Most people don't realize how much baseball attendance has changed, and how bad it was during the supposed golden age of the sport in the 1950s and '60s. I laugh when I hear Phillies fans complain because a game wasn't a sellout. Are you kidding me? In 1967, only the champion Cardinals drew more than 22,000 fans a game.

Baseball thrives in a TV age because it's a singular event -- with green grass, blue skies, hot dogs and beer -- that TV will never replace, because it's a ritual that spans at least 162 days and nights, and because it offers something that Americans crave in 2013, which is our lost sense of community (look how the Phillies of the 2000s brought his town together...until the winning stopped.) Any game can use occasional tinkering, but major changes to baseball would kill the goose that laid those golden eggs.

That's why this median-aged "geezer" (Mahler's term, not mine) will be watching his 48th World Series tonight, and I won't worry too much who else is tuned in. Baseball will be just fine, Oh, and guess who's throwing out the first pitch...Carl Yazstremski. C'mon Yaz!

Bonus: Below you can watch "Yaz" and those '67 Red Sox, in the oldest preserved whole-game color telecast of a major league game, from September 1967.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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