BE BETTER, MLB
MLB missteps with Astros series reveal harsh truths about baseball’s grim future
It happens every spring. We see headlines like this:
MLB Looks to Grow Its Younger Fanbase.
MLB Needs to Invest in Youth to Keep Baseball Alive
MLB Explores Growth in Younger Fan Base
U.S. Baseball Fans are Too Old, Too White and Too Few.
And every fall we learn that baseball, despite all its efforts to grab younger fans, saw its TV ratings and attendance dwindle and its fan base grow older.
To paraphrase the Pogo comic strip, baseball has met the enemy and it's baseball.
Consider last week, Game 2 of the Astros vs. White Sox. It's the playoffs, baseball's annual showcase. Interest is sky-high in Houston because this is the Astros revenge tour to show they can win without cheating. For the rest of the league, a chance to boo the evil Astros and hope they lose. All the ingredients for a terrific game were in place.
The game was telecast on the MLB Network, owned and operated by Major League Baseball, so it was baseball's decision who'd be in the broadcast booth. Who did baseball, so desperate for younger and more diverse fans, pick?
Bob Costas – age 69. Buck Showalter – age 65. Jim Kaat – age 82. Three white guys on Medicare. Asking young people to spend four hours listening to those guys is like telling a teenager he's going to spend spring break visiting his grandparents in Phase 3 of Del Boca Vista.
During the game, Costas spent five entire minutes rambling about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon between White Sox manager Tony La Russa, early 1900s Philadelphia A's manager Connie Mack (team doesn't exist anymore), and our 16th president Abraham Lincoln.
This was after Costas mentioned the train above the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid and proceeded to offer a history of rail travel in America.
I love baseball. It's my favorite of the four major pro sports. I probably watched 130 Astros games on TV this year. They're an amazingly fun team to watch. If the Astros and Giants get to the World Series, I'm grabbing my kid, digging up the coffee can buried in my backyard and buying tickets to every game.
I watched Costas, Showalter and Kaat do Game 2 and wondered ... what the hell are these guys talking about?
During the first inning, Showalter praised the physical attributes of the White Sox' Cuban-born third baseman Yoan Moncada, to which Kaat replied, "Get a 40 acre field of them."
Kaat's comment was interpreted by many as a racial throwback to a post-Civil War proposal to give freed slaves 40 acres of land and a mule. A few innings later, Kaat apologized for the comment, after making it clear that he was ordered to read the apology written by someone on the MLB staff. I do not think Kaat meant his comment in a racial sense. I do think it was just a dumb thing to say, a bolt of lightning from 7th grade history crossing his mind. His comment actually was an attempt to compliment Moncado. Jon Gruden's emails, however, another story.
Baseball's attendance this year was down 12 percent from 2019 the last full season. More fans attended games two decades ago than now. Baseball's TV ratings are down, too. Most alarming, the average age of a baseball fan is 57, older than fans of the NBA (42), NFL (50) and the NHL (49). Young people are turning their backs on "America's pastime." Only seven percent of baseball fans are under 18 years old. Is Bob Costas aware that Connie Mack doesn't move merch at Academy Sports and Outdoors?
Crying out for younger and more diverse fans, here come the playoffs and the MLB puts three white senior citizens in its owned & operated broadcast booth.
The main complaint about baseball is it's too slow. Now games take 3 hours and 11 minutes on average. Yankees vs Red Sox games (they seem to play each other 100 times a year on TV) take forever. Baseball has tried limiting mound visits and the constant merry-go-round of relief pitchers. Nothing seems to work, games are slower today than ever. Fifty years ago, games took 2-1/2 hours.
There are some far-out proposals to put a rocket under baseball games, like moving back the pitcher's mound, allowing batters to "steal first base" on wild pitches and passed balls, outlawing infield shifts. I'm against those. But robot umpires calling balls and strikes may be a smart idea. Computer line judges have improved tennis. All the calls are correct now, and players can't scream at the human umpire in pointless, time-wasting arguments they never win. Baseball should consider allowing computers to call balls and strikes … or fire umpire Angel Hernandez once and for all.
The entire Astros-White Sox broadcast was creaky. Ah, but there is an easy, doable solution. Why do I have to come up with all the good ideas around here?
The MLB Network owns two channels on cable systems, its regular spot and an alternate channel. Why couldn't they have put the White Sox broadcast team on one channel and the Astros crew on the other? I'm guessing that Costas, Showalter and Kaat worked no Astros games this year. Or one or two at the most. When you're not familiar with a team, that's when Connie Mack stories make their appearance.
Meanwhile, Astros broadcasters Todd Kalas, Geoff Blum and Julia Morales called almost every game (not counting a few national broadcasts). And when Jeff Bagwell joins the booth, Astros games become must-see TV. Kalas is a strong play-by-play guy, Blum and Bagwell are insightful and really funny, and Morales adds a touch that's just right. The Astros announcers are not a bunch of homers who would offend non-affiliated fans.
I'm sure that White Sox fans would have preferred their announcers over Costas and Co. on the MLB Network, too.