The Corner

Sports

Major League Baseball and the Kids These Days

A young Cleveland Indians fan waits for autographs before a 2016 playoff game at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

“Many feel baseball’s pace doesn’t fit the time, that it is too long and too slow to capture newer, younger fans,” Joe Posnanski wrote at MLB.com last year. It sounds like something an old person would say. No knock on old people, the demographic we all belong to, some of us because we live in the moment, others because you’re so forward-looking, always on your toes, leaning into the future. No knock on Posnanski either, an all-star sportswriter. He ably reproduced the piping voice of Major League Baseball as it worries out loud about keeping up with the kids these days.

“Too slow” for “newer, younger fans” is what old people said about baseball back when I was a newer, younger fan myself. You know, the glory days, when George Hendrick roamed center field to the ironic cheers of some fraction of the approximately 3,000 Clevelanders scattered across the cavern that was Municipal Stadium, built to seat 27 times that number.

Games were shorter then. Also, they were poorly attended, by today’s standards — not just in The Land but across The Show. In 1974, the average attendance per game was half of what it was last season, when — note well — the average game was longer by 36 minutes, or more than 20 percent.

That is, baseball was less popular when games were shorter. Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to make them shorter again. Hmm. MLB revenue has risen for the past 15 seasons. In 2017, it topped $10 billion for the first time. Meanwhile, Manfred is pushing rule changes to get game times down to what they were when he was a kid and professional baseball was a smaller, poorer industry.

No one doubts the sincerity of his conviction that baseball is in trouble, though as a business MLB is obviously flourishing, or that the way out of the imagined crisis is to stress up the game by adding clocks, imposing deadlines on players between pitches, and in general pressuring everyone to hurry. Manfred may assume that it’s despite the increase in game length, not because of it, that more people watch baseball now than when games were shorter. And anyway, his ultimate goal is to quicken the pace of play, for which game length — or game shortness, rather — is only a rough proxy.

Bear in mind, however, that pace of play is slower in the NFL. There the ratio of live action to dead time is about half of what it is in MLB. And yet, according to Gallup, Americans prefer football to baseball by a ratio of four to one. Granted, it may be despite all the so-called dead time, not because of it, that football beats baseball in revenue as well as in opinion polls, but maybe that’s enough with the special pleading. Everyone knows that the pauses between the notes are where the art resides, and the evidence that fans like them is greater than the evidence that they don’t.

The assumption that they don’t follows a pattern you might recognize from the Catholic Church’s rewrite of the Mass in the 1960s. The liturgical reformers reduced the amount of dead air, as a radio engineer might think of it. The practice had been that during much of the liturgy the priest prayed sotto voce at the altar while the people in the pews did likewise as they turned the pages of their missal or moved their fingers down the string of their rosary beads. Another option was to close your eyes, forgo all visual, aural, and tactile stimulation, and be still. “Mental prayer,” they called it. It worked fine, at least for those who knew the ropes. For the benefit of those who didn’t, the Church slashed the amount of supposed dead time. That’s when Mass attendance in the West began to plummet. Of course, the people who stopped attending may have done so for other reasons. What we do know is that the increase in the ratio of bustle to quiet didn’t keep them from leaving.

A subcategory of the new Mass was the “guitar Mass,” pitched to the young people. Many of our elders weren’t that much older than we were, but they exaggerated the distance, treating us with the condescending benevolence of a Western anthropologist among people in the bush. They thought we would relate to the holy sacrifice better if we sang lyrics to a Cat Stevens song at the Offertory. God bless the Jesuits who taught my generation of Catholics in the 1970s. They meant well, but they got a lot wrong. A brother of theirs in Argentina grew up to become the pope. I never met him but I recognize his mind.

Now it’s the pope of baseball who wants to pander to the youth market. Does he have evidence that young people — or anyone, for that matter — would watch more baseball if its pace of play were accelerated? Has the assumption that they would because they have short attention spans ever been tested? The leisureliness of baseball is in its DNA. The best that any project to make it more like basketball could achieve would be marginal, a blip compared with the agita induced by the introduction of clocks and little rules designed to make players work faster. Most fans already get enough of that at their own jobs.

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