As another baseball season winds down, I’ve been thinking about the future of the game. Baseball is losing the hearts of the kids to soccer and a host of other activities. Why is that? Baseball flourished through the Depression, a couple of World Wars, the summer of Love, and it even did OK through the 70′s. When was the last time you saw a group of kids in a pick up baseball game? When was he last time you saw kids flipping baseball cards against a wall, winners keepers? Actually, the cards to too frigging expensive today. I doubt many kids have enough to even risk gambling them. Who can afford to have “doubles” today? But I’m getting off track, the cost of baseball cards, and baseball in general, is the subject of a post in the very near future.
Who is to blame? I point the finger at just about everybody. Parents don’t seem willing to put in the time required to foster a love of baseball in their kids. I’d blame society and culture in general, but that is really just a reflection of the parent’s priorities. Certainly, we can blame Major League Baseball. As the entity with the most to lose financially, they have really dropped the ball on this one. However, today I’m focusing on the parents.
Baseball is not like any other sport. Well, it might be like cricket, but I’ve never really understood cricket, so it’s hard for me to say. Baseball is not broken up into convenient 24 second segments, nor does it have the finite time limit so critical to almost all other major sports. A baseball game is done when somebody wins. It’s that simple. But I don’t think that works well for today’s two income, two kids, one mini-van, over-scheduled family.
Also, baseball is harder to learn. As Ted Williams said, hitting a pitched ball is the hardest thing to do in sports. In what other athletic endeavor does a 30% success rate make you a superstar? Parents today don’t want to put in the hours it takes to help a child get good at the game. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve thrown thousands of batting practice pitches, countless grounders, and umpteen fly balls to a short, scrawny little boy who has turned himself into a better than average 8 year old ballplayer. I’m not some frustrated jock forcing the game on my son. Many days, he dragged out there, my arm still sore from the 100 pitches I threw the day before. I’ve coached pee-wee baseball the last three years. It was painfully obvious that many of the kids never touched a baseball at home.
Nope, it is much easier to throw him on the soccer field and tell him to “kick the ball that way.” Also baseball, with its one-on-one battles within a team game design, doesn’t fit in well with today’s emphasis on a child’s self-esteem, earned or not. It’s kind of hard to hide the fact that you were 0-4 with 4 K’s. It’s really easy to hide in the roving pack of chaos otherwise known as a youth soccer game. Baseball amplifies both the successes and failures on the field, requiring somebody to take the blame or the accolades. In other words, it promotes personal responsibility. That is not exactly in keeping with current parenting and educational theories.
Even for the kids the don’t necessarily want to play the game, it used to be there for them as an obsession. When I was a kid (and I’m not that old!) every kid in the neighborhood or the school knew baseball. They rooted for the local team, had a favorite player, and checked the box scores religiously. In short, they cared. How many kids do you know today that really care about baseball? How many kids can read a box score? I know one, my son. Baseball is not given to fads of popularity, and by nature of the game cannot really be dominated by one personality, except maybe for short periods of time in connection with some historic event. (Sosa and McGwire chasing Ruth, Cal Ripken’s streak in the last weeks, etc) Kids that don’t grow up on baseball will most likely not be fans as adults. There will not be a “Michael Jordan” of baseball to help save he game.
So what can we do to save baseball? The parents are mostly hopeless. If they ever did decide to care they would probably demand some government funded program (run through the public schools) that teaches their kids about baseball. Major League Baseball itself is a big part of the problem. I’ll tackle that monstrosity next time. Cuba seems to keep the kids interested. But maybe Castro just forces them to play. Actually, baseball in thriving in Latin America. The kids don’t have gloves, use a stick for a bat and rags for a ball, but they still love the game and play it from sun-up to sun-down. Kind of like me and my best friend back at Grissom AFB in Indiana. It was one on one baseball, with liberal help from our friends, the ghost runners. The bases were trees, and local ground rules dictated that a ball passing over a certain branch was a home run. The bat was plastic, so was the ball. We wore gloves, not because we actually needed them with a plastic bat and ball, but because baseball is played with a glove. It never seemed to be an option to us.
Do kids today even know what a ghost runner is?