The Vine: July 29, 2015
This is a different letter than what you usually publish.
Why do you think baseball is losing its status as the National Pastime?
For a hundred years, it was an indelible part of the culture, head and shoulders above every other sport. So important that Jackie Robinson is considered to be an important reason the the Civil Rights movement happened. To strike out, to be thrown for a curve or to bat 1.000 are expressions everyone uses (although there used to be more baseball phrases in the lexicon). The Black Sox scandal was well-known for decades, after its participants retired and died. Now, baseball's fans skew older than any other sport (half are above age 55, according to the WSJ), and even PL soccer does better among kids. Last year, the Ice Bucket Challenge was called the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge because, according to the ALS Association, kids don't know who Lou Gehrig is.
The reasons usually given for the decline in kids watching baseball and playing Little League are
1) Horrible Kids These Days, with their texting and their snapchatting, don't have the attention span or patience for a slower, more intellectual game like baseball, without cheerleaders and big halftime shows. I don't think that's the case, because these same kids are reading thick novels and following fiction with complex mythologies, and have the patience to watch soccer, which is just as low-scoring and doesn't have flash either.
2) Immigration patterns. But baseball is popular in many Latino and East Asian countries, certainly more than (American) football and basketball, both of which are thriving. Besides, baseball thrived in an era where the U.S. had mass immigration from non-baseball countries.
3) Sabermetrics. Young people aren't becoming emotionally attached to a game that requires complex math to fully appreciate. (Relatedly, baseball is too focused on past glory.)
4) Games are too long, it's too expensive to go to the ballpark, it's a hard sport to watch on TV since there's a lot of waiting. There might be something to this, as televised games run over three hours now, compared to two a generation ago. (NFL games are longer, though.) You could take that further, and say baseball was never really suited to a time when we get all our entertainment from TV. So the age of Mays and Mantle was the last age of true baseball supremacy, but it took a generation to start to see the effects.
The other explanations (baseball is expensive, plays too late at night, is low-scoring) applies just as much to other sports. And I don't buy the argument that the steroid scandals have tarnished the game's image. Like baseball hasn't been full of cheaters and assholes since Ty Cobb was in short pants. And again, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer, have more than their share of unsportsmanlike behavior.
So why is it? Why is baseball as a cultural institution going the way of the Miss America pageant?
Don't Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Apparently
I forget where I read this — I'm going to guess the Bill James Historical Abstract; usually when I have a solid theory or chewy anecdote about baseball, it's something I got from James first — but James (let's say) posited that the way we relate to the game has shifted from sport to entertainment, from something relatable in a firsthand-experience way to something more like a movie. Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, pick-up games and stickball were dominant spare-time amusements for children, before TV was invented (or before everyone had one, or before there was shit-all to watch after school) and videogames and whatnot — and also before bike helmets and Etan Patz and unsupervised play as radicalized parenting capital-S Statement. My father says that his entire neighborhood played baseball games — everyone. Girls, babies, everyone under dating age.
"We strapped up Jeannie Hamilton with a glove on her noggin and parked her in short left behind your Uncle Chip."
"Ha, wow. I'm sure Mrs. Hamilton loved that."
"She's the one who suggested it."
Baseball is hard to play well and nobody was really great at it, but that wasn't the point (and not for nothing, but this is where bunting is a Viking; this is what it was invented for). It was how you passed the time. Not just baseball — my dad and uncles ran passes and shot hoops and built harrier courses at the college, and there was some game involving the overhand hurling of ice skates? Didn't end super-well for my dad's shin, I know that much ("best slider J ever threw, that jerk"). You played outside, not just unsupervised (and not really, anyway; there was always some adult and her yardarm vodka mart within wailing distance) but unregimented. You didn't get driven to your league game in your special kid carseat you had to sit in until you got armpit hair, where you wore two helmets and did drills. You just played. You pretended to be Del Ennis. Your friend who got mauled by the polio did the call from the "dugout" (a refrigerator box) and ate apples. Different time.
My father, an underrated storyteller in the fam, has a way of making his childhood sound like a Roger Angell column, rosy good decomplicated by distance, but I do think that the transition of after-school "horsing around" into a more organized aspect generally of children's lives has something to do with it. Pretending you might play center for the Yanks one day has become more of a goal, with steps leading up to it, than a pleasant daydream you eventually age out of. So, yes, maybe it's partly Kids Today, except really it's Parents Today or Child-Rearing Today Is Not So Much About The Old Self-Reliance or what have you.
The immigration patterns, I can't speak to, except to say that I think baseball has historically let underappreciated groups — with the one overdue exception, of course — get a foothold with on-field heroics: Germans, Irish, Italians. We forget how tough Germans had it between the wars here, "No Irish Need Apply" signs, that DiMaggio's stardom was kind of a big new deal (and paired with a nickname, "the Daig," nobody blinked at; I'm told my great-grandfather, a Mazzoni, was tickled by it).
I don't think sabermetrics is a problem. The stats aren't that tough to understand; I don't imagine it's a factor either way. Plus they're fun to say. WHIP! VORP!
I suspect it's a combination of factors. We have many more entertainment options, and most of them don't cost as much as a night at the park, you're right. Just the trip to Citi Field physically takes it out of me and Dirk. The pace of the game is, to my mind, a non-issue — a slower game means more baseball; where's the problem, Keith Hernandez who's always complaining about long games he's paid to talk about — but you do see major- and minor-league teams trying to make the ballpark experience more intense and fast and Jumbotron exciting, which is kind of like when Spam was marketing itself as both a real thing people eat and an ironic thing people wear t-shirts about, like, this isn't really what the game is. Like, sometimes it's a bit slow, boring even. You don't have to sit staring unblinking at it the whole time. Go get a little soft-serve helmet and play Candy Crush if some pitching change is taking a minute. Flip over to Mr. Robot. There's 161 other games.
Baseball is a regional pastime now; you don't have the national-event feeling that you get with football, which has a shorter season and a more war-like blah blah we've all heard the George Carlin routine. But the sport is perfectly healthy. It isn't in decline. Whatever else Selig did or declined to do, he presided over record growth. The internet, for me, has enhanced my enjoyment of the game, not splintered it or paled it. McCarver cracks on Twitter always play; what a time to be alive. Yeah, it's not like the fifties when my various and sundry male relatives landed in the headmaster's office for getting hot-potatoed with the transistor radio they were listening to the Classic on — but I can put my feet up on a hot July night and listen to Vin Scully at Chavez Ravine on my phone. It's just different. Mantle was a walking (well, limping) anecdote sparkler; we get Aroldis, though, and that works for me.
So: let's let the NFL have this one. In five years that shit's going to look like a touring musical thanks to concussion-avoidance standards anyway, and then maybe we'll care about tennis, but whatever you want to call baseball, 'tain't going anywhere. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go turn the two Free Shirt Fridays deGrom tees we spent 3.5 goddamn hours in the car roundtrip to get into a drawstring miniskirt, because I am a boss.
Tags: Aroldis Chapman Bill James Bud Selig Del Ennis Don Mattingly Etan Patz football Jackie Robinson Jacob deGrom Keith Hernandez Lou Gehrig Mickey Mantle rando the fam there's totally crying in baseball and that's okay Tim McCarver Willie Mays