I haven’t written about baseball before for The Fields of Green. Maybe because it’s too close to my heart and it’s easier to take a business-like point of view about sports to which I’m less emotionally attached. But right now, I’m in Florida at Washington Nationals’ spring training and do have a few observations.
There have been far too many stories written about the demise of the National Pastime. This will not be one of them. It’s true that baseball’s fan base, and thus its marketability to advertisers, has been dwarfed by the NFL, the NBA – even NCAA football and basketball. The naysayers declare that baseball is too slow, too boring. But the fact remains that franchises are worth more than ever. The Los Angeles Dodgers sold for $2 billion four years ago. And last year, the Ricketts family valued the Chicago Cubs at $2 billion even though the Cubs last won a World Series five years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and 12 years before women could vote.
Nevertheless, as I sat in a filled-to-capacity stadium of rabid and knowledgeable fans, I’ll admit I had concerns. Chief among them was a demographic one. The average age of the fans at Space Coast Stadium was somewhere between Viagra and dead. Yes, this is spring training in Florida and younger people are at work and at school, but honestly, you’d expect more of a balance. The Nationals are a young team with young stars, so you see plenty of jerseys in the stands bearing the names Harper, Zimmerman and Strasburg. But the day I went, the Nats were playing the St. Louis Cardinals and Cardinal Nation was out in force. What was far and away the No. 1 jersey? Musial. Not even Pujols. I saw one or two Molinas, but that was about it for active players. What does that say about fan loyalty now and into the future?
For one thing, it suggests that the current state of free agency is problematic. As we watched the weepy Yankees say farewell to Derek Jeter last year and to Mariano Rivera the year before, it was certainly fair to ask whether spending a long career with one team would continue to exist or whether free agency’s skyrocketing salaries were simply too enticing not to hit the road, no matter how much adoration a player feels from fans. Players who are emblems of the teams they’ve played for, such as Ernie Banks, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken and of course, Stan Musial, may, with very few exceptions, be historical relics of a different era and a different baseball.
The so-called improvements, like last year’s expanded instant replay and this year’s pace-of-play rules are interesting, but they will have little effect on the casual fan. A change as significant as the introduction of the designated hitter to the American League in 1973 didn’t change the outlook of fans, and by contrast, these most recent rule modifications are just dithering at the margins.
In fact, baseball’s greatest hope may be the Hispanicization of our country and our culture. Salsa has been outselling ketchup for years. Can baseball and futbol be far behind as sports that get the greatest focus and increasing ad dollars? One has only to attend a World Baseball Classic game between, say, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to see fans far more rabid than any MLB World Series. Indeed the thawing of relations with Cuba may be the best thing that’s happened to Major League Baseball in many years.
Despite the premature obituaries, I continue to be optimistic about baseball and it’s place in the sports universe and in our society. Baseball is embedded in our culture and in our language. “In the ballpark,” “bush league,” “home run” and yes “field of dreams” –- or even green — are part of the way we express ourselves. So you may count baseball out, to use another sports cliché, but as a wise ballplayer once said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”