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What's the Future of America's Pastime?

archival photo of a baseball player sliding into a base where a fielder is standing. stylized in red and blue

They called the old Yankee Stadium a “cathedral.” The titular character in Casey at the Bat is one of America’s enduring poetic figures. Films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams imply that magic thrives within the diamond. And even NYU President John Sexton wrote a book called Baseball as a Road to God.

It’s a lot of pressure for a sport that has been, frankly, limping a bit over the past decade. Between TV ratings in decline (the World Series attracted 36.3 million viewers in 1986 compared to 13.8 million in 2014) and fending off competition from the likes of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, English Premier League, and even NBC’s American Ninja Warrior—baseball finds itself a “pastime” among upstarts. Factor in the rise of online gaming, LeBron James, Inc., March Madness, and the dominance of “America’s Game,” otherwise known as the NFL, and baseball could be excused for feeling like a quiet bistro trying to attract customers along the Las Vegas Strip.

But it’s the unapologetically deliberate, slow-cook nature of the game that still lures fans willing to let drama unfold on its own terms (unlike those thirsting for the instant gratification of a 16-second Ronda Rousey fight). There’s a sense of timelessness induced by an afternoon spent staring at fresh-mown grass and debating the strike zone. And as one of the few sports without a ticking clock, baseball almost forces fans to sit back, settle in, and be transported—to childhood memories, perhaps, or even just those lazy days when there was no Twitter feed to tend to.

On the occasion of the New York Mets in hot pursuit of their first World Series title in nearly three decades, we asked resident expert Wayne McDonnell—academic chair of the Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business, who played and coached at Iona Prep, was co-owner and manager of the semi-pro New Rochelle Rockies, and now writes about the business of baseball for Forbes —to assess the state of this game, first played just a few miles west, in Hoboken, back in 1846.

—Jason Hollander

 

photo: portrait of SPS professor Wayne McDonnell

Wayne McDonnell

Is baseball really still America’s pastime?
Baseball is deeply woven into the fabric of our society. I think it will always be that comfortable pair of shoes, that comfortable sweater. You might not always wear it, but when you do take it out, you realize why you love it so much.

And how ’bout those Mets?!
We have a lot of that going on in the city right now because of the wild popularity of the Mets and what they're doing. Even people who don't know anything about sports like to bask in the reflective glory of what winning does and to be part of something big. There's just something about the Mets right now that seems to be magical. And championship caliber teams have that magic.

We’ve been hearing for years about the game’s decline. How did it happen?
I think it was the strike in 1994, and the cancellation of the World Series that year. People were very disenchanted. Here were men fighting—and it was the millionaires versus the billionaires. And then we had steroids, and it turned into this whole moral conundrum of, "Do I go [to a game]? Are these guys really clean?” And then we had the economic crisis of 2008, and going to a baseball game is extremely expensive. And then it just got long. I mean baseball games over three, three and a half hours. That's a lot of time to commit over a 162 game schedule, where with football, okay, three hours once a week for 16 weeks. Very manageable.

Ratings are lower, but what about attendance?
I would be concerned when I see a significant decline in overall major league baseball attendance. At one point in time I think the MLB average this season was around 33,000 fans a game, still a very healthy number. If we're seeing that number drop into the mid-twenties per game, that's when I would really start to hit the alarm.

Can anything be done to help baseball grow?
Commissioner [Rob] Manfred is looking at pace of play, especially the rules with the hitter staying in the box. Because we would see it after every pitch, the hitter would get out, adjust the batting gloves, adjust the helmet… And then the other thing they're probably going to look at is pitching changes. How many times can you change a pitcher in an inning, how many times can you visit the mound.

But it's not just as easy as, "We'll allow five warm-up pitches between innings rather than eight." That could have a negative effect on sponsorship and advertising through television because maybe you can't have six commercials between innings, maybe you have to have four. So it might affect their business model. It’s a far more complicated issue than just making a simple change to appease fans.

Is baseball inherently less appealing to young fans because it requires such patience?
Looking at our students here at NYU, they might have the same passion that I do for the game, but they channel it in different ways. I might go home and watch it on cable TV for three hours; they might watch it for five minutes the next morning on a clip that they get off of Twitter. They might not even own a television. They're going to consume everything off a phone, an iPad. They're still fans, but we're looking at it from different perspectives.

More than other sports, baseball gets this sort of holy reverence from writers. What inspires that?
I think because there are so many elements within the game where it's one-on-one. The batter versus the pitcher. I can't tell you how many times it was me stepping into the batters box or toeing the rubber saying, "Please god, help me with this pitch," or "Please let me not strike out." But it's almost a little Zen-like in a way, where you have to control your body, you have to be at peace to do some of the most violent acts. I mean throwing a baseball and swinging a bat, those are very violent acts towards your anatomy. But in order for you to achieve success, you have to have almost this Zen-like quality when you're doing it.

And that “letting-go” is maybe best exhibited by the idea that hitters, against instinct, should keep a gentle grip on the bat.
There's an old saying: You're creating sawdust—because you're squeezing the bat so tight. You want to relax your hands. I try to tell people, ‘You're playing the trumpet.’ Up and down, up and down. Relax. And then there's a certain time when a pitcher separates his or her hands. That’s when you're locking in. It's like, okay, ready time.

Of all the great baseball films, which one captures the game best for you?
The final scene of Field of Dreams still gets me because there's something about having a catch with your dad. And to this day it can bring tears to your eyes when you hear the final lines: "Hey dad, you want to have a catch?" "Sure, I'd like that."


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