Final out is 1 strike away for baseball

August 16, 2002|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA -- Baseball is on the verge of striking out, but I couldn't care less because baseball lost me as a fan several years ago.

What major league baseball should realize is that the national pastime has passed its time and that it can't afford another work stoppage. It's too late to get me back, but it can still save another generation of fans before it's too late. A decision by the players Monday to back off from setting a strike date was a good start.

I loved baseball while growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was my favorite sport. I played catch with my father and with friends in my back yard and played several seasons of Little League. I collected baseball cards because I idolized the players.

My father took me to many games at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. He even caught a foul ball that I still have.

Through the years, I saw the Phillies' Mike Schmidt make barehanded throws to get a runner out at first base, Steve Carlton pitch masterful complete games and Willie Stargell of the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates hit a 450-foot home run.

Baseball was king in my neighborhood, as in most neighborhoods in the country then.

Baseball enjoyed a virtual monopoly when it came to professional spectator sports in the first half of the last century. Pro football didn't become popular until the 1960s, pro basketball became big in the 1980s and pro hockey's popularity spiked in the 1990s.

Greed has been good for both the players and owners. Today's 850 active major league players earn more than $2.3 million a year, or more than $14,000 a game. In December 2000, shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Major league franchises are worth hundreds of millions of dollars (the Boston Red Sox recently sold for nearly $700 million). But there are signs that baseball's popularity is in decline.

There's too much competition for the entertainment dollar for baseball to continue its arrogance. NFL games sell out and draw big TV ratings beginning every September. Basketball and hockey playoffs start in April and run until June. That leaves only July and August in which baseball doesn't face stiff competition from other sports.

Young people have other diversions. Youth soccer has become as popular as, if not more than, Little League baseball. There's also competition from the Internet, video games and skateboarding. Most diehard baseball fans are elderly.

A sad note about baseball: Its most compelling element is its storied history. I haven't watched a complete major league game for about two years. The game's just too slow, and the aloof attitude of most of the millionaire players has turned me off.

It seems as if the players and owners didn't learn anything from the 232-day strike in 1994, which meant cancellation of that year's World Series for the first time in 90 years.

Major league baseball suffered a big dent in attendance for years after that. Attendance through the first half of this season was off 5.7 percent from last year.

You need only to look to Philadelphia to see the growing apathy. In response to the Phillies' consistent failures and numerous last-place finishes over 17 years, Veterans Stadium is consistently only one-third full. Attendance is artificially inflated with fireworks nights and giveaway days.

Despite the building of new ballparks in Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh, attendance in those cities has been disappointing.

Last month, 40 baseball Hall of Famers asked the owners and players to use a mediator to settle their work dispute. It seems unlikely their plea will be heeded.

The days of waxing poetic about the joys of baseball are over. We can live without baseball. But the owners and players must realize they can't live without us, the fans. If they don't settle this labor dispute, their field of dreams will surely become a nightmare.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.