America’s Pastime??

Barry Bonds in action.
Barry Bonds

I had every intention of doing a full blown 2009 baseball preview. That obviously didn’t happen. Opening Day has come and gone and so it seems a rather pointless exercise.

I remember not that long ago when Opening Day was an event. Everyone, even the most fair weather baseball fans, knew when it was approaching. I suppose it’s still a big deal for a significant amount of baseball aficionados, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have the cachet that it once did. I didn’t even realize it was occurring until I heard it mentioned on the radio in my car about an hour before the first pitch was to be tossed. There didn’t seem to be much coverage of spring training this year, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the decline in popularity of baseball, atleast in relative terms when compared with our ever-increasing love affair with football. For me personally I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and they haven’t been anywhere close to competitive for about 17 years. We Pirates fans have no real reason for hope or anticipation and usually quit paying close attention before summer even officially begins. I’m sure this apathy spreads to fans of other teams like the Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals, and Cleveland Indians, whose teams are rarely that good. This can be traced to the lack of a salary cap, something football has and baseball sorely needs. There are also the constant scandals that have rocked the sport for the last couple of decades. I don’t believe it’s out of bounds to hypothesize that the beginning of the end for baseball started with the downfall of Pete Rose about 20 years ago. Then in 1994 there was a players’ strike that cut the season in half and forced the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series. Baseball has never fully recovered from that season and the wrath it instilled in loyal fans. It came very very close to a much desired reconciliation with its public in 1998 due to the excitement involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s chase of Roger Maris’ vaunted home run record. But during the past 4 or 5 years even that progress has been unraveled as we’ve learned that all those home runs were likely a mirage, the numbers skewed by illegal substance abuse. One by one mighty heroes of the diamond have fallen from grace, from Barry Bonds to Jose Canseco to McGwire to Alex Rodriguez. Even pitchers, chief among them the legendary Roger Clemens, apparently aren’t above cheating.

We also cannot ignore the changing landscape of our nation. We prefer fast and frenetic these days, as opposed to slow and easy. Football appeals to our more modern, chaotic sensibilities, while baseball seems nostalgic and bucolic. Baseball is a relic, a living monument to a bygone era we recall with a certain sense of wistful wonder. It’s a nice place to visit occasionally, but it’s not something we can really sink our teeth into for the long haul. And with its 162 game season plus playoffs and then a World Series baseball definitely encompasses a long haul. Transversely, football season seems much shorter, even though it really isn’t. Close examination reveals that baseball opens in April and concludes in October…..7 months. Football, if one takes into consideration both college and the NFL season which basically overlap, begins in late August and climaxes in early February…..7 months. Of course there is a significant difference when one factors in that each team in football plays once per week, while in baseball your favorite team likely plays 4 or 5 times. Youngsters today consider baseball slow and boring. They have so many other choices…..video games, the internet, DVDs, Ipods. Our culture is on sensory overload, and baseball easily gets lost in the shuffle.

Football has better PR as well. Does anyone think football players don’t use performance enhancing drugs? If you do, you’re more than naïve. But no one seems to make nearly as big a deal out of it. Also, when was the last time you watched or attended a college baseball game? College baseball has an extremely limited following, while college football is HUGE. We are able to follow our beloved football players every step of the way from their recruitment to the university of their choice, through their entire college career, to speculating who’ll choose them in the NFL Draft (does anyone actually watch the MLB Draft? Ummm…no), through their (hopefully) long NFL career. We’re invested in football every step of the way. Baseball…..not so much.

This examination is not meant as an insult to baseball. I’m still a fan. I just find it unfortunate that circumstances have converged in such a way that prevents me, and legions of others, from being a passionate fan. Calling baseball America’s Pastime is nothing more than a marketing tool. It is more a reflection of America’s past.

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