How much do people really care about baseball strike?

Some musings about the baseball strike as it groans along now in its second month. 1. Who cares? And how much?

We all know that there are a billion or so Chinese out there who couldn't care less. And of course the same goes for a few hundred million Russians, Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, etc. But what the people whose tunnel vision zeroes in on baseball haven't figured out yet is that there are probably 150 million or so Americans in the same category.

You can start with those who just aren't interested in sports -- period. Then add those who enjoy participating via jogging, skiing, tennis, swimming, or whatever, but don't get particularly excited by watching others perform. Then there's another group that does enjoy spectator sports but considers baseball "too slow and boring," and prefers to watch the more continuous action and/or body contact of football, basketball, hockey, etc.

That still leaves a lot of baseball fans, to be sure -- undoubtedly more than for any other spectator sport. The major leagues did attract some 43 million paying customers in 1980. But taking repeaters into account, it is probably giving baseball the benefit of the doubt to guess that this boils down to at most 15 million people who had enough interest to go see even one game in an entire season. And even when you add in those listening to games or watching on TV, you still have a majority directing its attention elsewhere.

I know all this is difficult to fathom -- much less accept -- for people whose lives revolve around the game and who associate constantly with others of a similar bent. And to be sure there is a fairly large hard core of super-ardent fans -- some even going to such lengths as staging hunger strikes or filing suits claiming they've been denied their Constitutional rights to the pursuit of happiness.

Such publicity stunts aside, there are of coure many millions who really do miss the game. No one would seriously dispute that fact. I just wonder how large a group it is -- and how many are really all that upset.

The overwhelming majority of people with whom I've talked fall into one of three categories: (1) They like baseball to some extent, but its absence is a minor inconvenience at most; (2) They couldn't care less; and (3) They're overjoyed about the strike.

That last group, by the way, may be a lot bigger than some suspect. Many people connected with other sports resent the way baseball dominates media time and space, and they see the strike as a chance for their sports to get some long-overdue publicity. I heard that opinion widely expressed at a gathering of hundreds of athletic officials from around the nation at the US Olympic Committee's headquarters in Colorado Springs. And there are plenty of other nonbaseball fans who may not have any competing interest but who still welcome the respite from being bombarded day and night all summer with news of something they don't care about.

Throughout the country, this adds up to a lot of people. And Group No. 2 is undoubtedly even larger. But it's Group No. 1 that is really most important to this discussion.

Baseball's widespread popularity, it seems to me, derives largely from its unique status among all sports as a day-by-day backdrop to the activities of more than half the year. It's not so much going to the games (which, as we've noted, most people don't do), or even watching them on TV or listening to them on the radio, but just having the game in the background all the time. It's: "How did the Yankees do yesterday?" "Can Aaron catch the Babe?" "Is DiMaggio's streak still going?" "Is Brett still hitting 400?" "Did Rose break Musial's record yet?"

No other sport has ever been able to create such interest year by year, and of course people miss it. Most of them aren't losing too much sleep over it, though, and despite what the establishment might like to think, I doubt that it's spoiling too many summers.

2. Can there possibly be enough interest to justify the ridiculous ersatz substitutes to which we've been subjected?

Obviously some people must think so. Newspapers have been running everything from full-blown coverage of farm teams to reprints of old stories to totally fictional accounts of imaginary games. Radio stations have been doing the same things, in their field. And even TV, though by far the lesser offender, has shown some minor league games.

I cannot imagine any but a relative handful of "superfans" wasting their time with most of this material, and from the gradual lessening of it, I suspect most of those putting it out are coming to the same conclusion.

3. Will the strike affect public interest?

In the long run, I don't think so. For the immediate future, though, the game may well find that it has more trouble than it bargained for rekindling the old spirit among all but the most dyed-in-the-wool fans.

I recall an experience in 1972 that indicates what can happen when one gets out of touch for an extended period. I've frequently retruned from a couple of week's absence and picked up my baseball interest with hardly a hitch. That year, however, I was in Europe for almost 1 1/2 months right in the middle of the summer. And when I got back I found that after this much time it's not quite so easy to switch gears -- even though there was a hot pennant race in my own city involving the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers.

I think a lot of fans may have the same experience when and if this strike ends. It may take them a while to get back into their "baseball gear," but presumably all or most of them will make it sooner or later.

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