When I was a kid, an annual mid-March tradition involved my father and I opening up the newspaper and going through the Baltimore Orioles’ spring training roster to try to figure out players would make the Opening Day roster. I knew all the players, from the veterans to the rookies to the ones merely brought in as extra arms, bats and gloves for exhibition games.
The beginning of the baseball season is a magical time, a rite of spring, and far better columnists than I have written extensively about how Opening Day perfectly symbolizes rebirth and a fresh start.
But fewer and fewer people each year delight in the opening — or the middle or the end — of the Major League Baseball season. And I understand it. Even as someone who has spent most of his life a diehard fan of the game, someone who covered hundreds of MLB games, when I tried to recreate that childhood ritual by looking at an Orioles roster, I was familiar with only six or eight players.
Like so many, I’ve lost touch with the sport. It remains a great game, requiring perhaps the greatest variety of skills and certainly requiring the most strategy, but the way it is played today doesn’t make it all that much fun to watch. Pace of play gets slower every year and there’s just not much action.
Oh, it’s every bit as exciting as football or basketball when a ball is put into play, when an baserunner is trying to beat a throw, when an outfielder is chasing down a flyball in the gap, when an infielder is diving after a hard-hit grounder. It’s just that a ball being put into play happens less and less frequently.
Batters take more pitches than ever, trying to work a walk or at least increase the number of pitches thrown so that talented starting pitchers will be replaced by a steady string of anonymous, flame-throwing relievers. When they do swing, every ounce of effort, fueled by science that preaches launch angle, is put into trying to hit a home run but too frequently results in a strikeout. Whiffs are occurring at record rates.
A recent Sports Illustrated article perfectly summed up baseball’s problems when writing about the final game of last year’s World Series: “Over the final 26 minutes of play, viewers saw only two balls put into play. Over the three hours, 28 minutes it took to play the 8 ½-inning game, they saw 32 balls in play, or one every 6 ½ minutes. They saw more pitchers (12) than hits (10). They saw 27 batters strike out, or 42% of all plate appearances.”
That sound like something anyone would want to watch? Obviously not, since it was the least-viewed series clincher in history.
The article also noted that it took an average of 3 hours, 7 minutes to play a game in 2020 even though there were fewer hits per game than any season over the past 110 years except 1968. And that players take 2.6 seconds more between pitches that they did 10 years ago, which has added more than 13 minutes of “pure dead time” toe each game. And that only 15.8% of pitches are put into play.
The whole thing has turned off baseball fans but, worse, it’s been a barrier to entry of fandom for millions who would likely have become fans in previous eras. We simply have no attention span for the product, particularly those under 40 who are so desired by MLB and its sponsors.
Baseball stars used to be household names. Babe Ruth. Jackie Robinson. Hank Aaron. Pete Rose. Cal Ripken. Even, for better or worse, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Now “baseball star” is an oxymoron. Mike Trout might be the greatest player the game has seen since Willie Mays, but there are mediocre NBA players far more well known.
ESPN did a list of the 100 most popular athletes in the world based on endorsement money, how often their name is searched on Google and their number of social media followers. One has to scroll all the way to No. 99 to find a a single baseball player on the list (Bryce Harper).
I watched games on Opening Day and thoroughly enjoyed the experience for what it was, a sign of spring, an indication of normalcy returning, a nostalgic reminder of fun, long-ago times.
But will I watch baseball next week or next month? Probably only the highlights, sadly, which show the action while eliminating most of the walks and strikeouts and all of the dead time. As baseball should be trying to do.
Latest Carroll County Times Opinion
Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.