Growing up in the early years of Major League Baseball in Atlanta, the sport was so easy to love. Teams had pitchers who could go the whole nine innings, hitters who could bunt and steal bases, and managers who could fire up an entire stadium by getting in the umpire’s face.
Now, in the age of replay reviews, a manager has to take his argument to New York, where a group of umps occasionally put down their pizza to watch video and determine if their colleagues missed a call. Meanwhile, fans must watch the on-field umpires, hands on hips, headphones on ears, awaiting the decision. These long pauses provide ample time to get a sandwich, pour a drink, and take a bathroom break. At your local McDonald’s.
The art of bunting, once mastered by most big league players, is now a mystery to all but a few.
The days of Maury Wills, Vince Coleman or Rickey Henderson stealing up to 130 bases each year are long gone. No player has stolen more than 46 since 2017.
Today, when a starting pitcher makes it through five innings, he leaves the field to a standing ovation. And he’s too cool to tip his cap to the fans who pay his salary, which drives me crazy.
Speaking of the fans, I remember my dad making a three-hour trip to Atlanta back when I-75 was only 6 lanes in each direction, instead of the current 36. (I’m guessing, but I know I’m close).
This was when you could park your car, pay for tickets, and buy your kids a hot dog, a Coke, and some ice cream for less than a down payment on a new boat.
Yes, the past always looks brighter when gazing into the rear-view mirror, but there’s no doubt that the Great American Pastime is passing some of us by.
Unlike the days of yore, most fans can now see all of their favorite team’s games on relatively low-cost cable networks. For now, anyway. Trust me, this won’t last.
Back in the three-channel era, it was not uncommon for the broadcast networks to show one game a week, almost always featuring the Yankees or Dodgers. A Braves game was a rare sight until the 1980s cable “superstation” days. So if we wanted to see Hammerin’ Hank Aaron chase Babe Ruth’s home run record, we HAD to be there in person.
Yet fans still attend games, especially in Atlanta. Attendance has been strong, even for the mediocre 2021 Braves team. The new ballpark, which should bear Aaron’s name along with its corporate sponsor, is beautiful, accessible, and surrounded by a plaza with shops and restaurants. The Braves may have made some questionable player decisions, but they built their ballpark the right way.
League-wide however, attendance has steadily declined in recent years. Between 2007 and 2019, attendance dropped 19 percent, or about 6,000 fans per game.
During the same period, attendance at Major League Soccer games shot up almost 50 percent.
Are baseball team owners concerned with those numbers? You bet they are.
The commissioner’s office is constantly tinkering with ways to speed up the game, in hopes of attracting and keeping young fans who seek action. It’s no mystery why soccer has stronger appeal to the video game generation.
Many baseball games are simply hard to watch. Sure, purists love to study the finer points of the pitcher’s delivery and the team’s defensive alignment, while the game lumbers on at its traditional leisurely pace.
Recently that pace has slowed to the level of a chess match. We are seeing fewer balls in play. During a typical 3 ½ hour game, there are precious few minutes of action. Between each pitch, batters are readjusting their helmets and batting gloves, pitchers are staring into space before waiting on the fifth different sign from their catcher, and fans are scrolling through cute puppy pictures on Instagram.
Eventually, the batter either strikes out, walks, or hits a ground ball to a third baseman who is positioned in the right field grass. Before computers were invented, that ball would have been a hit. Now, anyone who has internet access knows there’s a 75% chance the batter will hit the ball to that spot. So why not put a fielder in that location? It’s smart baseball, but it is also boring baseball.
Recently I tried watching a Braves game at home, with my phone out of reach while I got comfy in the recliner. I slept from the 4th inning until the 7th inning, when announcer Chip Caray started yelling about a Freddie Freeman fly ball that would soon land in an outfielder’s glove far short of the fence. Well, it sounded like a home run.
Baseball is definitely not dead. But it sure could use a hip replacement.