Let me begin by saying I love baseball. I grew up playing whiffle ball nearly every summer afternoon in a vacant lot in suburban Chicago, and I played seven years of Little League. I regularly ditched high school, dodged the truancy officers, hopped on the El and spent my afternoons in Wrigley Field – this was pre-lights in the Friendly Confines.
As the immortal Garrett Morris put it so memorably on "Saturday Night Live:" "Baseball been berry, berry good to me."
If you asked me any statistic of any star player in the late 1960s and 1970s, I could recite it for you. Bob Gibson, 1968: 22-9, 1.12 ERA. I still remember these numbers. I couldn’t wait for the All-Star week, when you could watch Roberto Clemente square off against Vida Blue. Those were the days.
Today I couldn’t name more than a dozen players. Worse, nor could my three sons. Baseball is a dying sport. The trend is unmistakable and undeniable.
The baseball diamonds across the country are increasingly empty, with weeds growing in the infield.
If you drive by a neighborhood park on a Saturday afternoon, few boys or girls are playing baseball or softball. Most are playing basketball, or even, ugghh, kicking a soccer ball.
These days, skateboarding seems to be more popular with young teens than baseball.
Having coached softball in recent years, I’m increasingly amazed at how many 20-somethings are clueless on the field (you have to tag up on a fly ball, moron!) and seem to swing a baseball bat with less skill than my 11-year-old sister used to. How do you strike out in slow-pitch softball? Really?
Major League Baseball’s TV audiences are shrinking. It used to be that watching the World Series was must-see TV. For the past 20 years, viewership of the World Series is down, down, down. People would rather watch "Dancing with the Stars."
A big part of the decline is that since fewer American kids are playing baseball, fewer Major League stars are Americans. The teams are increasingly dominated by Central American or Caribbean stars. A related problem: Few great black athletes play baseball anymore.
The sport is also too slow-paced. Way too slow. And there’s way too much standing around. You practically get more exercise texting. Sorry, but this is an instant gratification generation coming of age. For Millennials, waiting two minutes between pitches is tantamount to serving a life sentence. We have speed chess, why not speed baseball?
So I am going to recommend six ways to save America’s pastime. Baseball purists won’t be happy at all, but the sport has got to change or die.
1. Three balls and take your base, two strikes and you’re out. This is a fundamental and dramatic rule change. It would force pitchers to throw strikes and speed up the game. This may not work for professional baseball, but it would be a huge improvement for youth leagues.
2. For Little League: Rotate the pitcher every inning so every kid has a chance to take the mound and be the center of the action. Also, rotate all positions, so that the least talented kids don’t get stuck out in right field watching the clouds pass by for an hour and a half while maybe one ball gets hit to them. The game is now too tailored for the star athletes, not the average kids.
3. Get rid of practice between innings. The players should rush on to the field and be ready to go. The pitcher should be ready to pitch. He can warm up on the sidelines when his team is at bat. Play ball. No warm-ups for relief pitchers unless the pitcher gets injured.
4. Also for Little League: Every kid bats. If there are 12 kids on the bench, you have a lineup with 12 batters (but you still put nine on the field).
5. Give the pitcher a maximum of 45 seconds between pitches or else the umpire calls an automatic ball.
6. Get rid of all domed stadiums and retractable roofs. This is obvious. Baseball (and football) should be played outdoors, always and everywhere. I’m biased; I grew up in Wrigley Field.
Whether these reforms will rescue baseball before it becomes about as popular as cricket or badminton is an open question. But it’s time for an intervention to save America’s pastime.