The jury's still out on baseball's future

Baseball expert M. Philip Lucas, who teaches a class at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, called "Baseball: The American Game," is asked if the relationship between the sport and its fans indicates they are happily married, temporarily estranged, or bitterly divorced.

"How about saying," suggests Lucas, a history professor, "they are cohabiting?"

Indeed, with the Major League Baseball season opening with games this week in Tokyo between the Cubs and Mets, cohabiting is a good word, indicating a certain compatibility but, perhaps, not necessarily commitment.

Baseball seems to be heading into the 2000 season with a decent head of steam - thanks to the home-run exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But everybody seems wary.

In the last of his blazing and insightful columns in The New York Times, Red Smith was trying to convince himself when he wrote his final words: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio." The wait continues. The glory decades of the 1920s, '30s, '50s, and even '60s are dim memories for most.

Rob Baker, chair of the political science department at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and a serious baseball devotee, sees a basic and perhaps intractable problem: "Baseball is too boring for a lot of kids to watch. Even playing it is boring for kids."

There's evidence to support Baker's theory. Providing more of a kick for many youngsters are soccer, the X-type sports, computers. At Smith College, economics Prof. Andrew Zimbalist, a noted baseball expert, concedes the game is "more popular amongst older demographics."

A central part of its problem is that it is the most cerebral of the team games. Nuances are lost on increasing numbers of quasi fans. Baker was at a game last season in Detroit. Spectators flocked with the hope, yea, the expectation, of seeing McGwire of the visiting Cardinals hit at least one homer. He didn't, but he did produce the game-winning RBI with an elegant single.

Fans booed.

Power is simple to understand. Whap, there it goes. But what makes the game a lofty experience is understanding pitching strategy or appreciating the intricacies of a hook slide going into third. Besides, there never will be enough power in finesse-driven baseball to make that its chief drawing card on a daily basis.

Too, baseball just isn't what we remember. At Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., psychology Prof. Frank McAndrew is another baseball expert (he has studied domed stadiums and artificial playing surfaces). He says the "huge salaries and increased media attention to the business of baseball have taken away any illusions of purity the game once had."

Legendary actor Rex Harrison once observed: "I'm now at the age where I've got to prove that I'm just as good as I never was." We remember baseball as grand when practiced by Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, and Hornsby. But the past invariably is recalled more fondly than it was.

Much has damaged baseball that baseball couldn't help. Up until the '60s, it had the spring, summer, and early fall largely to itself. And then along came TV, auto racing, basketball, and hockey with their never-ending seasons; football beginning in July; the explosion of Olympic interest; and passionate following of the heretofore country-club sports of golf and tennis.

Yet, baseball has harmed itself with its arrogance and top management. Pouting and chemically altered players have limited appeal. Ticket prices soar, pitching gets worse because of the dilution, and, bingo, empty seats.

And, of course, the labor strife. The public has no stomach for it. The situation is largely viewed as multimillionaires squabbling over how to divide up billions. When fans subsequently stayed home in protest, baseball "was chastened a bit," Zimbalist says. Another of those ominous collective-bargaining situations comes up in a few years and Professor Lucas sounds glum: "It is not clear to me that the problems of baseball can be addressed without major strife."

The game has roots, but does it have legs? Homers flying into rows of deserted seats enunciate the problem. Baseball is truly a remarkable game to have survived all these slings and arrows.

But the road ahead looks bumpy, occasionally rocky, and, along some stretches, impassable. In Iowa, Lucas surveys the landscape and concludes that "the odds are good that another temporary estrangement will occur."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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