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JOHN STEIGERWALD: Baseball past its golden age

on April 14, 2013 1:50 AM

Baseball is dying a slow death, and Baghdad Bud Selig knows it.

Bud’s the commissioner of Major League Baseball — the guy who’s always telling us that we’re living in baseball’s golden age.

We’re not.

Not unless you only want to count the actual gold. Teams are worth more and make more, thanks in great part to beautiful ballparks that were paid for by reluctant taxpayers. Attendance, thanks to marketing methods that were used only by minor league teams 40 or 50 years ago, is up. Good teams in big markets still pack ‘em in.

But the TV ratings for the All-Star Game and the World Series are in the toilet. Fans will watch their local teams in big numbers during the postseason, but they don’t care enough about the World Series to stay up past 11 o’clock to watch two teams they don’t care about. And if you know you’re not going to stay up until the bitter, cold end, then you’re probably not going to bother watching the beginning.

If baseball had a golden age, it was a long time ago. When it really was America’s pastime. Before soccer, lacrosse and video games. When almost every boy knew how to throw and catch a baseball long before he thought about putting on a uniform.

That’s not the way it is anymore, and that’s why Baghdad Bud was concerned enough to create a task force to find out, among other things, why only 7 percent of current players are African-American — the lowest total since MLB was fully integrated.

In 1975, 27 percent of major league players were African-American. Four teams opened this season without even one African-American on its roster, and there are 18 teams with two or fewer.

A task force isn’t going to get black kids in America playing baseball again. Forty or 50 years ago, kids, regardless of color, didn’t play baseball because they watched it; they watched it because they played it.

Right now the problem is getting black kids to play. Sociologists could probably give you a lot of reasons why baseball is at the bottom of the list of their favorite sports, but it might be for no other reason than it’s the hardest game to teach to a kid, no matter what color he happens to be, and the huge numbers of single mothers compared to 40 or 50 years ago, means fewer fathers — black and white — taking time to teach their sons.

Until fairly recently, a kid learned how to throw and catch in his backyard, maybe with a Wiffle ball or a tennis ball, and when he thought he was good enough, he signed up for a team.

Now it’s upside down. Kids are given uniforms and told they’re baseball players. Baseball is excruciatingly boring, bordering on child abuse, when it’s “played” by kids who can’t play a lick.

I’m too old to live long enough to witness the end of baseball as a major sport in America, but I have a feeling my grandkids, who, with one exception, play hockey, lacrosse and football but not baseball, are not.

During the 20 years the Pirates have been a source of misery for western Pennsylvania, fans have pointed to the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers and asked why their team that plays in a bigger TV market can’t win once in a while the way they do.

How are the Cardinals, who play in a TV market smaller than the Pirates, able to have a $115 million payroll and the Pirates can’t crack $60 million?

You might be surprised to hear that, even though their local TV revenue ranks near the bottom in MLB, the Cardinals’ local, non-TV revenue is in the top five.

The St. Louis Cardinals call themselves a top-third revenue team.

Thanks to a huge footprint in the Midwest, they rank 10th in total revenue.

Take a look at the Reds’ radio network and you’ll see affiliates in major cities like Indianapolis, Columbus and Louisville, not to mention Dayton and Lexington. The 10 million people living reasonably close to Cincinnati allow them to have a $107 million payroll.

The Pirates’ radio network has affiliates in Washington, Pa., Johnstown and Altoona.

The Milwaukee Brewers’ payroll is at $72 million, down from $97 million last year.

They have an entire state to draw from and have a retractable roof that guarantees someone from Oshkosh, who buys a ticket to an early-April game, won’t drive a long way for a rainout. That’s why the Brewers have been drawing 3 million fans while the Pirates were thrilled to go over 2 million last season.

Then there are the Cubs, who play in the third-largest TV market in the United States, and if they ever figure out how to spend their money wisely, they will eventually get a billion-dollar local TV deal.

Other than that, it’s really just about the Nutting family being cheap and hiring people who were really smart until they moved to Pittsburgh and became instantly and amazingly stupid about all things baseball.

Watched the Masters on my new 3-D TV.

Best thing that ever happened to golf.

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