Baseball doesn't get it: Kids matter

October 20, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

On the surface, everything looks hunky-dory for major-league baseball right now, doesn't it?

It's been the best postseason in history. The games have been great. TV ratings are going through the roof.

And fans are still buzzing about curses and brain-locked managers and the poor slob at Wrigley Field who tried to catch a foul ball and may end up like Luca Brasi, sleeping with the fishes.

Plus, now you've got a terrific World Series matchup: the upstart Florida Marlins against the mighty New York Yankees, Cinderella against the Evil Empire.

Yep, things couldn't be better for the national pastime.

Well, except for one thing.

Too bad a lot of kids are missing all the excitement.

But this is what happens when baseball insists on starting games at 8:20 at night on the East Coast and all the games go until the last drunk falls off his barstool, never mind past a schoolkid's bedtime.

This is what happens when baseball refuses to at least schedule day games on the weekends, so kids could actually watch all nine innings and catch all the beauty, drama and nerve-racking intensity that is the postseason.

This is what happens when baseball, in its arrogance, cares more about ratings and fat-cat sponsors than ensuring the renewal of its fan base.

Oh, I know, I know, this isn't exactly a new story.

Baseball has been pushing kids away for years with its postseason schedule, which seems to center on: What time does Verizon Wireless want us to start?

But unless it wants to end up the sport of geezer fans, it better wake up and smell the coffee.

And then it better do something about it.

Because right now, fewer and fewer kids give a hoot about baseball.

Fewer and fewer are playing organized games. And forget pickup games - kids don't do that at all.

Go ahead, drive by your neighborhood diamond and see if anyone's choosing up sides. On second thought, don't bother. It probably has chalk lines across it for soccer.

So many things compete for a kid's free time these days. You've got a ton of other sports they can play, plus the evil troika of TV, video games and the computer to keep them big and fat and lazy if they're not active.

So why would these kids want to play baseball - and grow up to be fans - if we're not hooking them by showing them the game at its highest level?

You'd think baseball would realize this. But so far, the owners and their clueless commissioner, Bud Selig, don't seem to get it.

Of course, as we've seen over and over, no sport can shoot itself in the foot like baseball.

And when baseball does shoot itself in the foot, it's never just a flesh wound.

No, baseball blows off a couple of toes and arrives in the emergency room with a bloody stump wrapped in a bedsheet, howling: "Look what I've done! Somebody help me!"

Baseball shoots itself with greedy owners and selfish players, labor problems and moody superstars who think they're too good to sign autographs.

It shoots itself with escalating ticket prices and $15 parking fees and $6 beers at the ballpark.

And somehow, the game endures. Somehow, because it's such a great game, the fans always come back.

Unless ... the next generation of fans just doesn't care anymore.

So why not try a few things and see if we can hook kids on the sport again?

If baseball is adamant about night postseason games, how about starting them an hour earlier, at 7:30 on the East Coast?

At least then kids who have to get up for school the next day could watch a few more innings.

And how about playing the weekend games during the day, so kids could actually watch the whole thing?

But so far, baseball doesn't want to hear about any of this.

If we start at 7:30 p.m. in the East, baseball officials say, we lose viewers on the West Coast, where it's 4:30 and people are still at work or at the beach or wherever.

And if we play day games on fall weekends, we're up against college and pro football, and that means a smaller TV audience and smaller ad revenues.

But this seems awfully short-sighted to me.

So you have a few thousand less viewers in California for the first pitch. So you lose a few mil in sponsor revenue from Sprint and McDonald's and Old Navy when you're up against football.

Big deal.

Isn't that a small price to pay if it helps get kids watching baseball again? And playing baseball? And caring about the game?

Isn't it a small price to pay to ensure another generation of fans, of paying customers?

Am I missing something here?

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