Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Baseball is Just About Perfect, and That’s The Problem

I put a coat on this morning. I left the window open overnight. The pool is closed. The sun doesn’t get up when I do.

October has arrived. As has one of the sports world’s greatest and most enduring legacies.

Postseason baseball? Nope, just complaining about it.

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Whether it’s discussing the game’s “wobbly future” or the New York Times declaring our national pastime as “irrelevant,” it happens every October now without fail.

Why does this happen? Because of national television ratings. Not local television ratings. Not revenue. Not profits. Not the amount tweets sent out, not the amount of words written and not the excitement the games provide.

Due to one stupid number, the game is somehow opened up to ridicule and slander.

There is only national sport in this country and that’s football. We love watching football. We love gambling on football. We love football.

But no other sport can throw out two mediocre teams – say, the Bills and Browns – and draw 6.8 million viewers. For all other sports, the national TV ratings are driven by superstars and market size. Between Jordan and LeBron, the NBA ratings fell off the map. When the Kings and the Devils play for the Stanley Cup, the NHL doesn’t get more than 20 seconds on SportsCenter.

Don’t feel bad for baseball. And don’t believe the hype. The Dodgers sold for $2 billion. The Pirates have played playoff games that a third of Pittsburgh watched. The game, shockingly, is as healthy as ever.

The beauty of baseball is that it is a community-driven sport, as close to the Club feel of European soccer as there is the United States. The baseball team is the currency that drives a city and fuels a spirit. “Did the Nationals win last night?” “You see the game?” “Yeah, I’m cutting out at lunch Thursday to see the game.” “I love going to a game.”

Baseball has never translated on a national scale – the game was propped up by virtue of no competition and being the biggest game in town in the biggest cities around. Would baseball be our national pastime if Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle played in Milwaukee? No, they played in the biggest city in the world and made baseball the biggest game in the world.

Everything has always been fueled by its local connection and nothing has changed. We have changed. The game has not.

And that’s why baseball is just about perfect. There has been one significant rule change in the past four decades and the designated hitter still causes a debate in pubs across the country. Hockey changes rules annually. Today’s football game resembles nothing of the 1980’s version, much less the 1960’s versions. And basketball – the less said about basketball’s devolution the better, unless you like iso-plays and hate Magic Johnson on the fast break.

But baseball is baseball. Three outs. Three strikes. Nine innings.

Baseball has one significant problem – but it’s not national television ratings. It’s the pace of play. While all sports take longer than they used – college football games push 4 hours, NBA playoff games never seem to end – the length means more action. An incomplete pass means more plays. Foul shots mean more possession. Even penalties in hockey lead directly to power plays.

In baseball, the added time adds no value. It’s just guys scratching their crotch, removing shin guards after sliding into second and taking time from the batter’s box. It’s a significant issue that needs to be addressed. It’s not the problem with baseball.

That's because there are no problems with baseball. It is amazing how short-sighted we’ve become as a country and a society.

On Monday afternoon, the #1 Twitter topic worldwide was the name of a rookie pitcher from St. Louis. But baseball is irrelevant.

Last week, TBS was the most-watched cable network, outpacing even ESPN and their Monday Night Football-fueled ratings. But baseball is irrelevant.

In June, the Spurs and Heat played an epic Game 7. It drew 26.3 million viewers. It was hailed as a landmark night for the NBA. It showed that the game still resonated with the country.  In 2011, the Rangers and Cardinals drew almost the exact same number of viewers for their epic Game 7. But baseball is irrelevant.

Baseball is not irrelevant. The fact that distinguished publications like the New York Times feel the need to discuss baseball’s relevancy proves it exists. The countless numbers of words devoted to the subject – these words I’m typing included – prove the game still matters.

This is not to obscure the fact that baseball is in lull when it comes to the national conversation. It is a far cry from 2003 and 2004, when the successful journey of the Red Sox and the painful failures of the Cubs intertwined to provide a narrative that no other sport could match. Or even the steroid-infused dream of the 1990's.

The game, though, has not reached the depths that other leagues have hit. This is not the Spurs/Nets NBA Finals setting new lows. This is not the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators playing for the Stanley Cup with a television audience of friends and family. Heck, this is not even the ill-conceived Baseball Night in America era.

The beauty of baseball is that you never know what’s lurking. It’s why a day game between two losing teams in August can end up as a history-making event. It’s why Game 6 of the 2011 World Series happens and your phone blows up with texts from friends you didn’t realize watched baseball.

It’s why a Monday in October can provide a near no-hitter, a game-winning home run and a series clinching home run in the span of a few hours. It’s why the game is ingrained in our social consciousness. It’s why Field of Dreams makes grown men cry. It’s why Dodger fans watch their televisions on mute to listen to Vin Scully.

It’s why the New York Times is wrong.

If the Dodgers play the Red Sox in the World Series, the ratings will soar. If the Cardinals play the Athletics, the ratings will not.

It doesn’t matter. You can have your discussion about what that means for the national conversation.

I’ll be watching baseball.

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