New York, The East

Sliding into First: Examining Baseball’s Pointless Plunge into Irrelevance at Cooperstown, NY

Sliding into first. Cooperstown, NY

Sliding into first base is dumb. Diving head first into a thick, immovable bag at top speed can result in injury and is almost always unnecessary. In baseball a runner can run through first base without the risk of being tagged out by the simple method of turning right after crossing the bag. Yet some players still slide. Like many of the decisions made around baseball over the years, sliding into first is almost always counterproductive but is permitted anyway, for no better reason than that it’s always been that way. And that’s a problem.

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Once America’s pastime, baseball has been eclipsed in recent decades by American football as the nation’s favorite sport. What’s more, it is rapidly losing ground to basketball, hockey and even soccer in the affection of sports fans. Most of its troubles have been self-inflicted, and it has woken up late to the idea that change is needed. But change threatens tradition, so change comes slowly to baseball, if at all.

 

The Baseball Hall of Fame: Welcome Cheaters

The Plaque Gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame

The Plaque Gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame

At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY tradition gets its due. Spread out over three floors and 97,000 square feet, the Hall of Fame is a shrine to baseball’s past. Of the more than twenty permanent exhibits, many celebrate the traditions of the game, its purity and wholesomeness. But what’s more interesting are those exhibits devoted to baseball’s pariahs, those players who aren’t supposed to be in the Hall at all, but who are there anyway because they can’t be ignored.

The Plaque Gallery is where the greatest players of all time have been honored with bronze plaques bearing their names. As of 2020 there have been 263 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Between two and six more are inducted each year. Yet just because you don’t have a plaque hanging in the Plaque Gallery doesn’t mean you’re not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Pete Rose, who has been banned for gambling, has a display there. Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, both of whom have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs, have a display there. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both accused of steroid use, and both famously unlikeable, are given recognition in the Hall.

Sosa and McGwire display at the Baseball Hall of Fame

Sosa and McGwire display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

To be fair, in a sport that’s so slow and resistant to change, cheating may be a way of injecting some excitement into the game. The famous home run record chase between Sosa and McGwire in 1998 has been credited for reviving fan enthusiasm after the strike shortened season of 1994. But as we know now they were cheating, so they’ve become outcasts—of a sort. They lost their chance to be honored with a plaque, but they’re still in the Hall. They made things interesting for a while, and that counts for a lot in a game like baseball.

 

Watching Paint Dry

Girls on their cell phones at a baseball game

Take a look around the stands at a baseball game today and half the fans are on their cell phones.

For a sport to maintain interest and continue to grow it has to evolve. Baseball is a 19th century game played in a 21st century world. People no longer have the attention span of farmers waiting for their crops to grow. Just take a look around the stands at a baseball game today and half the fans are on their cell phones. The game is painfully slow. It’s like watching paint dry. People are distracted. Today the average attention span of most Americans is a mere five minutes, down 50% from 1998. Yet the average baseball game lasts over three hours, and in all that time there are only eighteen minute’s worth of action. It’s a recipe for boredom.

A player calls time

A player raises his hand to call time, one of the many ways players are allowed to slow down the game.

But rather than find ways to speed things up Major League Baseball has sat on its hands as average game duration has actually lengthened by fifteen minutes since 2010. Recent proposals to add a pitch clock were given lip service but then shelved ahead of negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, which are scheduled to begin in December of 2021.

As always the traditionalists hold sway, and its hurting the game. Attendance is down 13% between 2008 and 2019, the last full year before the pandemic. Were this any other sport there would be concern verging on panic, but not in baseball. It keeps sliding into first base with no regard for how it’s risking its future.

 

A Maddening Indifference to Fans

A boy with his father at a baseball game.

A boy with his father at a baseball game. Today’s fans introduce their children to the game with almost no help from the institution itself.

The closest analogy to baseball’s indifferent attitude toward its predicament is the Catholic church. Like that hidebound institution, it stubbornly sticks to its traditions regardless of the fact that it’s losing followers year after year. And, just like the Catholic church, its most ardent supporters do the hard work of introducing the game to the next generation, getting little help from the institution itself.

Baseball game being televised

Television brought baseball to a nationwide audience, and then it took it away.

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Rather than increase its outreach to new fans, Major League Baseball has been making it increasingly difficult for them to watch a game. In many cities, games are no longer televised on broadcast television where anyone can watch them but are only available on proprietary cable networks that require an extra fee. Even when the games are televised nationally they are often scheduled at inexplicable hours. During last year’s Major League Playoffs, several key games were scheduled during the afternoon hours on weekdays when no school-aged person could possibly have watched them without playing hooky.

And listening on the radio has become an exercise in frustration as the broadcasts have become so commercialized that everything from walks to pitching changes have been endorsed by sponsors whose commercials must be read each time even the most minor thing occurs. It’s maddening.

 

The Nostalgia Trap

Wrigley Field in the 1930's

Wrigley Field, a venerable old ball park for a less than stellar ball team. In baseball nostalgia matters more than performance.

As for attending a game, the cost is becoming prohibitive for many. At Fenway Park in Boston the average ticket price is now $167.00. At Yankee Stadium it’s $145.00. And at Wrigley Field in Chicago it’s a relative steal at $90.00. Parking, food and beer add to the tally, often running as high as $50 per person. Taking a family of four to a major league baseball game can easily cost more than $500. By comparison, that’s the cost of two roundtrip tickets on a budget airline to any major city in the US. If Major League Baseball was trying to design a plan to drive fans away, it couldn’t do a better job.

You might argue that it’s all just a function of supply and demand. After all, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field routinely sell out, regardless of the blatant gouging. But baseball is rapidly becoming a game of haves and have nots. Sure, the Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs rake in a huge bounty, but other teams like the Marlins, Rays and Orioles struggle to put butts in seats. In 2019 the Miami Marlins had an average attendance of 10,016 in a park that holds 36,742. This in spite of an average ticket price of just $40. Is there something wrong with Miami?

Empty stands at a Miami Marlin's game.

Empty stands at a Miami Marlin’s game. Baseball is becoming a game of haves and have nots.

Hardly. The Miami Marlins have fielded competitive teams in 12 of the last 24 years and won the World Series twice. But they lack something Boston, New York and Chicago have, a grand old stadium and a storied tradition. As it turns out, baseball fandom consists mostly of traditionalists who value the nostalgia of the game even more than the performance on the field. If you doubt that, consider the Cubs, a perennial also-ran for more than a century, yet one of the top draws in baseball because of their venerable old stadium. Observers of the game call this the nostalgia trap, and the trap is slowly closing on major league baseball.

 

Why a Cobb Salad Tastes Better in Cooperstown, NY

Cooperstown, NY

Cooperstown, NY. The nostalgia trap is its life’s blood.

In Cooperstown, New York the nostalgia trap is life’s blood. All up and down Main Street baseball-themed shops and restaurants cater to fans. You can shop for balls and bats at the Where it All Began Bat Company, or pick up a spanking new cap at Seventh Inning Stretch. Hungry? You can order a Bambino Burger at the Hardball Café or a Ty Cobb Salad. None of this is any different than a ball, bat or burger you can buy anywhere else, but it’s all dressed up in a myth, so that makes it special.

13th century manuscript showing baseball

Ball and bat games have been around for centuries. Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball. This image is from a 13th century European manuscript.

The truth is Cooperstown had nothing to do with the invention of baseball. Abner Doubleday didn’t really invent the game in a cow pasture there in 1839. Baseball evolved over the centuries from a variety of ball and bat games played throughout Europe and the Americas going back as far as the 13th century.

American baseball as we know it was established in 1845 when the New York Knickerbockers baseball club codified the game with twenty rules that became the foundation of the modern sport. Since that time there have been just ninety-five rule changes, most of them occurring before 1920. In the last 100 years there have been only twenty-two rule changes, almost all of them controversial. Traditionalists despise rule changes, they mess with the nostalgia of the game. And therein lies the trap.

 

Out for the Season

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The decades ahead don’t look so promising for baseball. If the game doesn’t make some changes to become more relevant and engaging to a 21st century audience, its fan base will continue to erode. Yet baseball’s most ardent fans are more enamored with the history and traditions of the game than they are with the game itself and will brook no attempt to change it.

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In Cooperstown, New York that appeal to nostalgia is on full display. But in the hallowed halls of the Baseball Hall of Fame cheaters get their due, maybe because deep down everyone appreciates the effort they made to generate excitement, even if they had to break the rules to do it.

Fans applaud as well when a player slides into first base. If they happen to be watching the game at all, and not on their cell phones, they leap to their feet and cheer. It’s only after the play is over, and the player is invariably out, that they turn to each other and say, “That was stupid. He could’ve been hurt and been out for the season.”

Some things are not worth risking your future for.

 

 

Previous Stop on the Odyssey:  The Kancamagus Highway, NH
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Rochester, NY

 

My American Odyssey Route Map

My American Odyssey Route Map

 

Sources

“Baseball Rule Changes: A Timeline of Major League Baseball Rules Changes”, Baseball Almanac, acquired 16 July 2021, website

Gaile, Brandon, “17 Average Attention Span Statistics and Trends”, BrandonGaile Small Business & Marketing Advice, 20 May 2017, website

Hauser, Mark, “Why is Baseball and its Fans so Resistant to Change”, Bleacher Report, 20 Feb 2009, website

“How Much are 2020 MLB Tickets”, TicketIQ.com, acquired 16 July 2021, website

Kelly, CJ, “Strike Three: Baseball is Dead”, How They Play, 22 June 2021, website

“Miami Marlins Team History & Encyclopedia”, Baseball Reference, acquired 16 July 2021, website

Sheinin, Dave, “Baseball knows its games are too slow, doesn’t really know what to do about it”, The Washington Post, 16 June 2017, website

 

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Image credits

Sliding into first, AkronChildrensHospital.org

Plaque gallery at Baseball Hall of Fame, Malcolm Logan

Sosa and McGwire display at Baseball Hall of Fame, Malcolm Logan

Girls taking selfies at a baseball game, YouTube

A player calls time, TribLive

A boy with his father at a baseball game, BillyPenn.com

Baseball game being televised, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Wrigley Field in the 1940’s, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Empty stands at a Miami Marlins game, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Cooperstown, NY, Malcolm Logan

Page from 13th century manuscript, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Baseball Hall of Fame, Malcolm Logan

 

 

 

 

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