Take Me out to the Ballgame, Concert, Theme Park, and ...

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rick Thomas, a construction worker from Virginia, is watching a spring-training game in a sun-drenched Florida stadium with his third-grade son, Chris.

Until two years ago, Chris - a bespectacled and jovial kid - was passionate about soccer, which he played with his suburban classmates. "But after two years, it was time for a conversion," says Mr. Thomas. So the duo began watching games on TV, going to minor-league parks, and hitting the major-league's spring-training circuit.

"Baseball is a thinking man's game," Mr. Thomas says, munching a hot dog and explaining why he has tried to convert his son. "You have to think one or two steps ahead. I want my son to play that kind of game."

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Now, after two years, Chris's conversion appears complete. Asked which sport is his favorite, he looks up and grins. "Baseball, totally."

Dad beams with delight as Chris spots slugger Wade Boggs and bounds off to try to get an autograph.

Thomas is hardly alone in preaching the gospel of baseball. Dads like him have been doing it for years. But these fathers are getting some help. A growing number of major-league teams are trying new and innovative ways to woo America's kids away from the slam-jam action of basketball and soccer mania.

With the start of a new season just four days away, there are signs that after years of being thought of as too boring, baseball may be finding its groove among kids. The new outreach is driven by economics. To succeed in coming decades, baseball knows it has to reach beyond its current core of middle-aged customers and appeal to kids again.

For fans, this means a whole new ballgame. Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen may no longer be the music of choice at the ballpark. The seventh-inning stretch may no longer be the highlight of fan activity.

Today teams are sponsoring "theme" nights and post-game rock concerts. Last year, the Seattle Mariners held a "1970s Night" that drew young fans in polyester bell-bottoms who danced to disco on the field after the game. The club, which usually draws 35,000 on Sunday nights, drew a crowd of 50,000.

The Mariners are now working with a Top 40 radio station to bring in a rock band for a post-game concert. The team's efforts are paying off. Last year, it set a club attendance record of 3.2 million.

Although winning helps, you don't necessarily have to win to draw a young crowd.

Witness the success of an ad campaign by the Texas Rangers, who had a 77-85 record last year. The ads star Molly, an overall-clad teen reporter, whose interviewing antics have included a how-much-bubble-gum-can-you-stuff-into-your-mouth contest with pitcher Ken Hill.

But can clever, hip marketing alone attract a new generation of fans?

A quick look at statistics suggests not necessarily: From 1986 to 1996, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball grew from 7.6 million to 8.5 million - up 12 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The number of youngsters playing basketball, however, jumped to 15.3 million - a 54 percent leap.

The reasons for baseball's slow growth in relation to basketball are myriad. One is logistics. It takes more equipment to play baseball, a larger space to play it in, and more people to have a meaningful game.

But cut the bottom off a trash can, grab a ball and a buddy, and you're ready for a game of hoops. This simplicity, in inner-cities especially, has given rise to basketball.

But several baseball teams, including the Detroit Tigers, are working with True Value Hardware to rehabilitate derelict city fields.

And from Los Angeles to Boston, many professional baseball teams are paying for equipment for the RBI League, a national program that targets 13- to 18-year-olds. About 100,000 kids play in this growing summer program.

Another problem is the growth of free agency: Players are more transient, and fans aren't as apt to develop loyalties to local heroes.

Even managers bemoan it: "It would be nice to know that if you got a core of players, you could keep them together for a few years," says Tampa Bay Devil Rays coach Larry Rothschild, a veteran of the now-dismantled 1997 Florida Marlins.

"But," he's quick to add, "you'd have to do this without limiting the players' ability to make money."

Indeed, this raises another issue: salaries. In 1976, the average pay was $35,000. Now it's $1.37 million.

This can make players appear spoiled and snobbish to fans. It's a perception that's slow to change.

High salaries, however, don't necessarily have a negative impact on attendance, as the National Basketball Association's soaring popularity proves. The NBA has the highest average salaries in professional team sports.

But compared with pro basketball - where you often can't get in the door for less than $40 - pro baseball teams still have cheap seats. Some are offering family-oriented ticket deals.

But even with cheap seats, Brian Hunter, a Detroit outfielder, admits baseball is a hard sell to kids. It's all about persevering despite frequent failure - not something that necessarily excites the MTV generation. "What other sport can you fail seven out of 10 times and still be doing well?" he asks.

Yet it's these inherent elements that bring many fans back - and make them want to pass along baseball to their kids.

Tagging Kids

Many Major League Baseball teams have game-day giveaways for children throughout the season.

Milwaukee Brewers: Free baseball clinics for children and Family Day - four upper-grandstand tickets, four hot dogs, and four sodas for $23.

Minnesota Twins: Family Pack Promotion - four lower general admission tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, a Twins magazine, and a parking pass for $25 on each Saturday home game throughout the season.

* For more information, check out the major league baseball website: www.majorleaguebaseball.com

Inside Baseball: Things to Watch For This Season

* The new Arizona Diamondbacks may sell the most tickets, beating out the attendance leader for the past three years, the Colorado Rockies.

* Will Kenny Lofton's return to the Cleveland Indians help the club return to the World Series? One of the game's premier lead-off hitters was instrumental in the team's recent rise, but spent last year with the Atlanta Braves. Some have predicted he could score 150 runs this season, putting him on par with Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio.

* The much-lamented 1998 Florida Marlins may not be so bad after all. Many, but not all, of last year's stars are gone. Returning players include infielder Edgar Renteria and pitcher Livan Hernandez. Plus the team picked up Oscar Henriquez, a pitcher with a 99-mph fastball.

* After St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hit 58 home runs last season, some anticipate he could surpass Roger Maris' 1961 record of 61 home runs in a season. With two new teams, the pitching talent may be diluted, making home runs more likely.

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