Sunday, December 21, 2014

Has baseball finally jumped the shark?

Baseball beat back existential crises in '68, '95....but what about all the empty seats now?

Has baseball finally jumped the shark?

View of the field with Philadelphia Phillies´ Carlos Ruiz at bat during the eighth inning of an MLB baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Philadelphia. The Brewers won 10-4. (Chris Szagola/AP)
View of the field with Philadelphia Phillies' Carlos Ruiz at bat during the eighth inning of an MLB baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Philadelphia. The Brewers won 10-4. (Chris Szagola/AP)

There's a lot of things to remember about 1968, but the biggest headline in this 9-year-old's life was it that was the year that I began a lifelong love affair...with baseball. And here's the funny thing about that -- baseball was dying! That's what everybody was saying then, anyway. For one thing, it was just a decade since the famed '58 sudden death NFL title game that seemed to leapfrog football as our new national pastime (punctuated by the first Super Bowl in 1967), and that new sports world order was still a shock to many older folks.

But the more immediate problem was the infamous "Year of the Pitcher." Baseball was dying because every game seemed to be 1-0 (most famously, the All-Star game at the Houston Astrodome, in which the only run came across on a double play!) in a year in which Bob Gibson has a 1.12 ERA, Don Drysdale pitched 58 scoreless innings, and some cafone named Denny McLain won 31 games. My window to the wider world at age 9 was Mad magazine, and I still remember a satirical (duh) piece they did about a baseball game of the future that was a 31-inning (give or take) scoreless tie, in which the "news" was which players connected for foul balls. Many teams played in decaying ballparks in tough neighborhoods, none more so than the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium at 21st and Lehigh. Crowds of less than 10,000 were frequent, while sellouts usually came once a year -- the Sunday that they gave away free bats.

Spoiler alert: Baseball didn't die in 1968, or in the years immediately after. The pitching mound was lowered, the American League added a designated hitter (boo!), and the scoring of runs resumed. Then, starting around the 1980s, something unforeseen happened. In wide world of national TV attention and prestige, baseball was still faltering (Michael Jordan, does that ring a bell?) but under the radar, baseball got cool; cable TV made local teams in big markets a valuable commodity, with 162 "shows" a year, and then came the retro ballparks of the 1990s and things got crazy. In some unlikely cities -- Cleveland, for God's sake -- it became news when a game DIDN'T sell out.

Why? Baseball became the sport that no one wanted to watch on TV (unless it was your team) but everybody wanted to see in person. It was the quaint beauty of the ballpark, drinking a cold beer in the stands on a hot, languid summer night, the things that didn't come across on your cold, flat 40-inch Samsung but made places like Citizens Bank Park a hip place to be. Folks bought into that, big time. It didn't hurt that while ticket prices rose, a lot, they didn't soar to lunar rates like the other three major sports; a family of four could see a baseball game without taking out a second mortgage.

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Still, the warning signs that this might not last have been here, for a while. It wasn't just that World Series TV ratings plunge year after year, but the palpable lack of excitement every October when your hometown team isn't in it. (As a kid I caught the tail end of the era of people calling in sick for weekday afternoon Series games...can you imagine ANYONE calling in sick today, even last year when the storied Red Sox and Cardinals were pared up.) Sellout streaks turned out to be the sports version of "tulip mania" -- once the bubble bursts, they will never come back, not even in Philly. This year, with an early start to the season and abysmal weather even by early April standards, the lack of fans at baseball games has shocked many people. Tonight the New York Times has a bleak photo essay, entitled "Baseball, Anyone? Anyone?"

What went wrong? Like most problems, it's five or six things, piled up. I think this factor gets over-hyped but there may be something, in 2014, to kids and video games and short-attention spans. I saw some of that with my son, now 19, and his friends, although I think an even bigger issue is that baseball just drowns in the ubiquity of all sports. Even Saturday morning (!) now has 4 1/2 hours of a game that does captivate my son and some of his friends...British soccer.

Meanwhile, the big crowds of the '90s and the '00s allowed teams to keep raising prices to the point where that whole pastoral, day-in-the-sunshine thing kinds of gets lost along with the $20s in your wallet every time a kid visits the refreshment stand. Baseball still costs less than the other sports, but in a time of rising income inequality (yes, I did have to mention that...it's relevant) the average Phillies ticket price of $37.42 is out of the reach of some working-class folks. One oddity: Despite all the empty-stadium pornography of 2014, Baseball Almanac actually claims attendance is UP this year, because it's based on tickets sold, not how many actually come out.

Increasingly, thus, it feels like baseball's survival is predicated on marketing to the 1 Percent, and the thing about rich people is they can actually afford NOT to go to games (especially in April). Watch a Yankees or Mets home game and see how all the best seats behind home plate are empty every single game, thanks to all the hedge-fund inside-trader Jordan Belforts who pay thousands for season tickets and actually show up twice a year. That will not save the game.

But has baseball actually jumped the shark, as I asked in the headline? Signs point to 'yes,' but then signs pointed to 'yes' in '68 and again in 1995 after the long strike, and baseball survived, even thrived again. I'm not as sure about this time, however. The "retro ballpark" trick only works once. I think an improving economy (if that ever comes) and flat ticket prices would help a lot -- but the real salvation is probably an "unknown unknown" that neither you nor I see coming. But you've read this far, so you must care, and I wrote this post with the Phillies-Brewers in my left eye the whole time (and they're losing 4-3...ugh  tied 4-4), so there's that. I also saw a young fan at Citizens Bank park holding a sign aloft: "My first Phillies game."

Maybe saving baseball is that simple -- hiding amid the green shoots of another new spring.

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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