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What's killing baseball?

I remember going to old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati to watch the Reds while growing up. The old "cookie-cutter" parks in Pittsburgh, Philly, St. Louis, Atlanta, etc. were ugly, utilitarian places to watch the game. The food was uniformly hot dogs, brats, beer, nachos. The video boards had the graphics of a bank time and temperature sign. The concourses were sterile. The Astroturf looked ridiculous with the little dirt sandboxes around each base and the circle of dirt at home plate. They'd come around at some point and hand you paper All Star Ballots with the little hanging chads you punched out for the players you wanted. It was a different era.

There's been a lot of speculation about why baseball is dying. Attendance is lower. Ratings are lower. Fewer people watch the World Series even. It's been attributed to everything from other sports in the culture...to problems drawing kids...to difficulties learning a complicated game on a short attention span. The games last too long. There are too many breaks. Too many ads.

All of this is probably true.

Baseball has lost me over the years, I'll admit. Players are traded around too much. There are too many teams in the playoffs. There is too much background noise vying for your attention--both at the game and at home on tv. Between innings is the same ad 50 times. At the ballpark it's a constant stream of Kiss Cam and statistics and it feels more like being captive then leisurely staying focused on the field. In a desperate attempt to be entertained, we've forgotten that there is a baseball game going on. Bobbleheads will never match the power of keeping score, in my world, but I digress.

I've been trying hard this summer to give baseball another chance. A less than enthused chance. I'm not following religiously, but I've caught a few games here and there. I check the standings. But I don't have the games on the radio like I would have in the old days. Countering my cynical attitude is the kids. They understand the basics...a team trying to hit a ball, uniforms, that people go to the stadium to eat food. They want me to take them to one.

Apart from the being unable to sit for hours, getting bored, and it being probably too noisy for my son, the other issue is price. I've considered just spending an evening away for some me time and you quickly find that there are cheaper, more rewarding ways to spend one's money these days. The White Sox offer $5 tickets in the upper deck corners. And, if you use your MasterCard, the fees are waived at Wrigley Field this summer for a few upper deck sections that are priced to the year of the ballpark opening...$19.14.

But oh those taxes and fees. This is the "continue" page for a single $33 ticket for the Chicago Cubs vs. San Diego Padres.
  • 9% City of Chicago & 3% Cook County Amusement Tax  ($3.96 per ticket):$3.96
  • Per Ticket Fee  ($4.75 per ticket):$4.75
  • 9% City of Chicago Fee Tax  ($0.43 per ticket):$0.43
  • Total Taxes & Fees for 1 Ticket:$9.14
  • Price for 1 Ticket:$42.14
  • Per Order Fee :$4.00
  • Current Amount Due:$46.14

Call me crazy, but I don't have a huge interest in paying for a ticket-and-a-half to see one game.

Some of it is cultural. At the same time baseball geeks are more "into it" and stat-driven than ever, it also drives casual fans away. Steroids helped drive a few more away. A lack of parity. The perception that fans are getting robbed blind with overpriced everything. Player salaries drive a few more people away. The lack of games on free tv. Having to pay to watch online.

In short, baseball has both worked hard to kill itself and American society seems to be somewhat over it. A game isn't the event an NFL Sunday has become. There's not the same passion as hockey. It's harder to play yourself, recreational, than basketball.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. There's so much history there. So much tradition and beauty. On the other hand, baseball may be going the way of the landline telephone or trans fat or the typewriter. It's a distinctly old-fashioned thing in a modern world which has other preoccupations.

Can baseball make the changes it has to to stay relevant? I don't know. It certainly doesn't seem to be heading that way. I'm either watching the decline of something once great or baseball, to quote the famous movie line, will just always be in one form or another.

Even if they stop serving Frosty Malts or beer in paper cups. Even if--God forbid--someday the designated hitter makes it to the National League. Baseball is certainly sick...whether the disease will be fatal only time will tell.

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