The problem with baseball

My grandmother had a thick, green strip of grass in her back yard, in front of a yellowing garage that, far as I know, she never used. When the lawn reached its lushest — sometime between June and September — I’d drag one of my brothers out there with a glove and a ball, and we’d play Brooks Robinson.

Baseball was the game for every kid in America back then. In flat-as-an-infield rural Delaware, in the middle of a bunch of soybean fields, we didn’t care about the NFL. We didn’t know anything about the NBA. We didn’t follow college sports. We knew baseball. That was it. And in the Donovan homestead, that meant following our beloved Baltimore Orioles and idolizing Brooks, their slow-footed and sure-handed third baseman.

(To Orioles’ fans, Brooks was, and still is, simply “Brooks.” There was another Robinson on that team, Frank, a Hall of Famer who died earlier this month. Frank was, everybody would agree, the better player, a terror at the plate who remains the only person to win MVP in both leagues. Brooks was never great at the plate — a .267 lifetime batting average, about 15 homers a year — but with his Arkansas twang and his rumpled mien, he was relatable. Until he put his mitt on, anyway, and shuffled out to third. Then he became a short-brimmed, dig-out-everything Superman.)

The Donovans — my buddy Jack loves this story — would gather around our small TV in a front room of the big old red house in Willow Grove, bend the rabbit ears until we got the best picture we could and watch the Orioles on WJZ-TV out of Baltimore every chance we got. Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell would call the games. When the TV ‘s picture and audio faded because of weather or sun spots or simple old age, we’d plunk the radio on top of the TV set, tune in the AM station and pretend we could see what Bill and Chuck were describing.

***

Baseball, if you haven’t heard, isn’t the same now. It doesn’t have that same type of magical hold on us. It’s been a long time since it has.

That’s not just some old “In my day!” rant, either, or the opinion of people who never liked the game. Those all around it — the commissioner, the owners, the fans, anyone with a long-time stake in baseball — are worried. And they have reason to be.

Attendance last year dipped below 70 million for the first time in 15 years (an average of 28,659 a game). TV ratings have taken a hit, too, though to be fair, TV ratings are a little hard to figure now that you can watch a game in about a billion ways.

No sport pays more homage to its statistics than baseball, and some of those numbers that show how the modern game is played — length of game, pace of play, strikeouts, balls in play — are downright damning. You don’t have to be a seamhead or a stathead to figure out what’s happening.

Baseball, long proudly the “thinking man’s” game, has become too boring to bear.

First there’s this: An average game in Major League Baseball last season took about 3 hours to complete, down from about 3:05 a year ago. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But compared to NBA game times (below, thanks to Forbes), baseball still is an absolute slog:

Season All Games Non-OT Games
2015-16 2:16:41 2:15:40
2016-17 2:18:19 2:16:28
2017-18 2:11:48 2:11:16
2018-19 2:14:39 2:13:26

Strikeouts are up — they’ve been climbing for more than a decade — and balls hit into play are down, which means that actual action (other than the tossing between pitcher and catcher) is becoming as rare as an eephus. Baseball measures this: You will wait somewhere around 3 minutes and 45 seconds, on average, between balls in play in an MLB game. And those BIPs, as they’re called, are liable to be groundouts to the shortstop, remember. Not exactly riveting stuff.

In fact, it’s awful. And everybody knows it. The game that boasts that it allows fans time to think about the game (“There’s no clock in baseball”) is putting its fans into a coma.

Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci sums it up:

The average game in 1988 took two hours, 45 minutes and gave you 57 balls in play and 11 strikeouts. The average game today takes 19 minutes longer and gives you 49 balls in play and 17 strikeouts.

Add to that the general pace of play problem — batters fidgeting at home plate, mindless visits to the mound, interminable pitching changes, pitchers shaking off signs, strikeouts, another pinch hitter, warmups, foul balls, more strikeouts, another pitching change, walking off the field, walking onto the field — and you have a real problem. All this, not for nothing, in a sport in which the best players, for at least half that 3+ hours, are doing nothing but sitting and spitting sunflower seeds anyway.

MLB is working on it. Feverishly. There’s been some talk of a pitch clock — dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria! — though that now seems a few years off. (It’s already happening in the minors, and the Earth hasn’t cracked open.) They’ve limited the number of trips to the mound when a pitching change isn’t being made. There’s more talk of a rule that would make a pitcher either finish an inning or face three batters, eliminating (theoretically) the parade of pitchers in any given inning.

But it all might be too late. Baseball is still popular among young players — check out your public park — and may have even seen a bump in interest over the past year or two. But it’s certainly not as popular as it once was, for a lot of reasons, including increasing costs, the length of some seasons … and, unscientifically speaking, its uncoolness.

From research by The Aspen Institute and The Washington Post:

bigfourgraphLeBron James is cool. Kids get into Steph Curry. The Greek Freak sells jerseys. The Beard. Tom Brady is idolized, in New England at least. And, maybe, too, some kids somewhere are into Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and Mike Trout.

But you have to wonder: Do enough people care anymore? Should they, about this game?

***

The idea was for one of us to stand at one end of that grass rectangle, just down a slope from a gravel parking lot at the rear of the gas station next door to Nana’s house in Middletown. The other — the Brooks — would take his position on the opposite end, maybe 25 feet away or so.

The Brooksie would squat there, knees bent, butt down, glove scraping the tall fescue, while the other hurled balls at him. To the glove side. To the backhand. (We wouldn’t hit balls: We were never that accurate hitting fungoes. And we never had working fungoes.) Short hops. Line drives. Hard, like you’d get at the Hot Corner. (< worth a click)

The idea was to throw it just fast enough, and just far enough one way or the other — while not giving away which side it was going to — so that the wannabe Brooks had to dive, stretched to the fullest, to make the catch. Then he had to pop to his knees and fire it back to the other end. We did that for hours, taking turns with the glove, until the sun went down and we couldn’t see the balls coming.

Maybe there are kids now playing Kris Bryant in some backyard in Chicago. I’d bet there are. But baseball, as everybody knows, is not the same. Kids don’t live it. They don’t love it. It’s stuck in the past. Baseball’s time seems to have passed. It’s just not cool any more.

I’m not sure that even Brooks could dig it out of this one.

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