Is baseball in trouble?
On this final day of the regular season in Major League Baseball, we fans of the National Pastime should ponder the points made HERE about the game’s relevance — or lack thereof:
Major League Baseball is doing just fine. Unlike the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., it has been free of labor strife for nearly 20 years. It has more exciting young stars than I can ever remember. It has even achieved that elusive “competitive balance,” with seven different champions over the last decade. Teams across the country are playing in brand-new ballparks that they somehow persuaded local governments to help pay for. Over the last 20 years, baseball profits have grown from roughly $1 billion to nearly $8 billion.
The game, in other words, has never been healthier. So why does it feel so irrelevant?
Maybe the best evidence of this admittedly unscientific observation is the national TV ratings. There’s no sense comparing baseball’s numbers to football’s, which exist in a whole other Nielsen’s stratosphere. But baseball is losing ground to pro basketball, too. In 2012, the N.B.A.’s regular season ratings on ABC were nearly double those of Major League Baseball on Fox. The last eight years have produced the seven least-watched World Series on record.
More to the point, baseball seems simply to have fallen out of the national conversation (unless the conversation happens to be about steroids, that is). The last time baseball felt front and center, culturally speaking, was the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. And we all know how that turned out.
What happened — is happening — to our national pastime? For all the moral hysteria, the answer, I think, has little or nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs. It does have a lot to do with the broader cultural trends that have helped shape modern America. (We are talking about baseball, after all.)
Think for a moment about the very phrase “national pastime” now, in 2013. What sorts of images does it conjure? “It sounds like a guy sitting on a rocking chair on his porch listening to a game on the radio and maybe he’s whittling,” says Bob Costas of NBC.
As crazy as it sounds, baseball was once celebrated for its speed. Into the 1910s — before all of the commercial breaks and visits to the mound — it was possible to play a game in under an hour, says the author Kevin Baker, who is writing a history of baseball in New York City.
To the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of “the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!” The 21st century, not so much.
Paradoxically, baseball’s decline began at the very moment we think of as its golden age, the 1950s and ’60s. The game held the country’s almost undivided attention. Baseball’s heroes were America’s heroes. Yet the forces that would undermine the game’s cultural supremacy had already been set in motion.