Baseball is Dying

Let me start by saying I love baseball. I learned the game when I was young and fell in love with it because of my uncle John who would take my brothers and I to games every summer when we were kids. Veterans Stadium was magical to me. I can still remember Mike Schmidt hitting home runs. Steve Carlton on the mound and Garry Maddox with his flare snagging fly balls in centerfield. My uncle sat next to me with his program marking it up recording every hit, error and run by hand. These memories will stay with me forever. Yes, I am a lifelong Phillies fan. A suffering Phillies fan – a team that has the distinction, according to an associated press article dated July 16, 2007, as the losingest sports franchise in all of sports.  I love them as they have tallied over 10,000 losses. Yet I remain true to baseball and the Phillies. They keep disappointing and I keep watching, cheering, going to games, and watching the standings.  I used to thumb through the paper to keep updated, now I check on the ESPN app on my phone.  My how times have changed, and yes Field of dreams is one of my all time favorite movies.

  • 5 Cincinnati Reds: 9,925 Losses.
  • 4 Pittsburgh Pirates: 9,999 Losses.
  • 3 Chicago Cubs: 10,065 Losses.
  • 2 Atlanta Braves: 10,244 Losses.
  • 1 Philadelphia Phillies: 10,551 Losses.

Major League Baseball is a professional baseball organization, and the oldest of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. It began in 1869 in Cincinnati Ohio. Baseball has been around for over a century. It is an old game that has stood the test of time but it is dying a slow death according to Gallup.  Polls show only 6% of 18-34 year olds say it’s their favorite sport. The old song baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet seems to be passing away. The reasons are pretty clear yet the game remains mostly unchanged.

Baseball doesn’t look like its dying. It’s on television all summer and there are millions and millions of dollars being paid to players while TV contracts seem to be lucrative. The optics my friends are deceptive. Younger people don’t flock to baseball in numbers that will play out in 20 years- 6% of the population in 20 years means certain death or at the least very limited exposure. The game according to young people is slow and boring. There isn’t enough action. According to my children the jumbotron is way more entertaining than the game.  Here are my top 5 reasons why we see this great sport dying and my observations for to live.

Baseball purist

There are people like me who grew up on baseball and learned it from our uncle Johns who wrote down every hit and run. Our uncles were what I call the ‘purist’. They just loved the game and only the game in all its strategy and nuances. They revel in the beauty of bunting someone along or a sacrifice fly to get a run across. A purist was in it for the love of the game and were baseballs evangelist. They converted us young and exposed us to the magic. I was taught to open the sports page and read box scores and did it religiously. This was my conversion and I have stayed true but many today have not had the young boy conversion and have different definitions of what role this sport or any sport should play in our lives. “Baseball’s tired,” Phillies star Bryce Harper said. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.

“… You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

Tradition

While Harper, one of the games biggest stars, and just signed a 300 million dollar contract.  He has a new idea about how baseball should be played and changed. However, the tradition fights against his ideas. These traditions include ceremonial first pitch. The singing of take me out to the ballgame, the Designated Hitter, throwing back the visitors homerun, hot dogs, peanuts, if your batter gets hit you hit one of theirs. These are all things that baseball loves that many follow and have no idea when, why or where they came from – you just do them because they were always done. Of course tradition is not always bad. We all have them in one way or another.  However, when tradition becomes the main thing instead of the main thing remaining the main thing, tradition holds back the thriving of the sport or endeavor. We lose touch with the beauty and relational aspects of the game when we refuse to change traditions for the sake of tradition.  Traditions are great but should always be subjected to change. Changing traditions say we are open to grow and expand ourselves beyond ourselves. When we refuse to change tradition we in effect are ok with the beauty and majesty that shaped us ending with us.

Unwritten rules

Here is another thing about baseball –  there are all these rules that are not written that are a part of the culture. People into baseball think everyone knows them and get highly offended when violation occurs on the field of play. This subculture also has a lot of power to speak into the game because they are kept by power broker like writers, coaches, season ticket holders.  These are mostly people who fell in love with the game young and were taught these nuances and now control the culture of the game.  In effect, they are protecting something they love and killing its longevity at the same time because broader culture has changed.  I will list some of the rules below all of which I understand but am sure many will think are absurd:

  • Don’t Talk About a No-Hitter in Progress
  • If a Pitcher Hits a Teammate, Hit One of Theirs
  • Don’t Admire a Home Run
  • Don’t Step on the Pitcher’s Mound
  • Don’t Step in the Batter’s Box While the Pitcher Is Warming Up
  • Don’t Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter
  • Follow the Umpire’s Code
  • Don’t Rub the Mark After a Hit by Pitch
  • Pitchers Pulled from Game Must Stay in the Dugout
  • Relievers Go Easy on Relievers
  • Don’t Step in Front of Umpire or Catcher on the Way to the Batter’s Box

After reading this list one may be left to wonder how does one learn these things if you didn’t grow up with an uncle john in your life,  This is the great cultural dilemma. You can’t pick these things up quickly and most likely will violate them and offend the purist. The answer lies in the purist ability to let go of some of the unwritten rules and allow the game to adjust to current culture without losing its ethos.

It started without Black players

We know our country didn’t have the best start as we think about Native Americans and African Americans and their history. Baseball also participated in this posture by not allowing black players until Jackie Robinson broke the color line. The negro leagues produced some of baseballs most noted heroes. I don’t know about your uncle, but my uncle made sure I knew this history.  The baseball evangelist in my life wanted me to have the story of the struggle incorporated with my love of the sport and to this day it rests in my soul as a reminder.

Slow moving in a speedy world

To all my purist sisters and brothers who learned the game on warm summer evenings many times around a radio broadcast or made it to a game. We learned the game when you had to read a paper or see evening news.  We now watch on our phones and get updates real time through notifications. You may long for slower but slower is no longer the way of the world and if we let the younger generation watch home runs go over the fence, not throw at a person who has thrown at you, and dance around the bases perhaps the game can continue.

Hope for Baseball

In an article by Benjamin Hill a writer for MLB.com he took a look at a growing edge for baseball that I think could be its answer moving forward. “The success of teams such as Reading and Pawtucket speaks to a larger issue, as over the past several decades, Minor League Baseball has experienced a spectacular renaissance. What was once a ramshackle collection of teams playing in dilapidated stadiums, threatened by the twin indoor allures of television and air conditioning, is now something else entirely. Affordable family-friendly fun is the name of the game, with the ballpark recast as a 360-degree entertainment mecca (often as the centerpiece in downtown redevelopment project). The end result is an experience designed to appeal to as many people as possible, from the mascot and cotton candy-obsessed kindergartner to the scorecard-keeping purist.” “I regard this as a great American success story, as an industry that was essentially dying in the ’50s and ’60s has slowly rebuilt itself,” he said. “If you spoke to people who worked in Minor League Baseball 40 years ago and told them that it would be like this today, they’d never believe it.”

Baseball is obviously not the only institution with these same dynamics.  They exist in government, education, and yes American religion.  Many people experience church as steeped in unreasonable tradition, run by purists with the power to exclude based upon unknowable artificial baselines for engagement.  Some endeavors are designed to be exclusive.  Baseball and faith communities need a posture that is much more open and nimble to change with the times.  While ‘powers that be’ have a lot of investment in inertia, it is ultimately the downfall of a sport, movements of justice, or denominational Christianity.

Like baseball, the innovation needed to move institutions cannot be done from the top down.  Minor league baseball shows us that perhaps there is hope for institutions that are decades old, steeped in tradition, run by purist and possess too many unwritten rules. If it can be done for baseball maybe it can be done in other places.

Leroy Barber
Director of Innovation for Engaged Church
Greater Northwest Area United Methodist Church

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *