At Busch Stadium on Tuesday night, the third game of the 102nd World Series was no doubt the main attraction. But off the field, there was a surprise unveiling: a new five-year labor agreement between Major League Baseball and its players' union – meaning no debilitating strikes or shortened seasons to alienate fans.
"This is a historic agreement for Major League Baseball and is emblematic of the spirit of cooperation and trust that now exists between the clubs and players," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said before the Cardinals-Tigers matchup.
In announcing the deal, Mr. Selig noted that a record 76 million people bought tickets to games this year. Such enthusiasm was on full display Tuesday night, as 46,000 fervent fans packed the brand-new stadium. With the new labor agreement adding to the rosy picture, Selig proclaimed, "We are in the midst of baseball's golden age."
But at least a few voices have been heard lately wondering if the roaring crowds and record attendance during the regular season are really evidence of a "golden age" – or are a mask for an aging "national pastime"?
Most close observers agree that the sport has only in recent years regained the popular appeal it had before a damaging 1994 players' strike, which killed the World Series that year and saw many fans swearing off professional baseball.
True, attendance and revenue are up – along with a bevy of new stadiums. But television ratings for this year's Game 1 hit a new low for a World Series, and recent polls show waning interest in baseball.
For some, it all adds up to this: America's love affair with the game of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron is a bit more tentative than at first glance.
"People packing ballparks but failing to watch the sport on TV is an indicator of a deeper malaise of the game," says Gary Gillette of the Society for American Baseball Research, who co-chairs its business of baseball committee. "Record attendance and revenue only go so far in explaining the sport's popularity. Has the sport come back from the strike? I'm saying it hasn't. Not yet."
Supporting his view is a poll by Pew Research Center in June that found professional baseball is the favorite sport of just 13 percent – about 1 in 8 Americans. At the same time, football is at 34 percent and basketball at 14 percent. Other polls, including Gallup, show similar results.
Television ratings as a measure of baseball's popularity are uneven historical measures for many reasons, including the fact that there are so many more channels to watch now. Still, the World Series' appeal to viewers could be considered a test of mass appeal. But it drew just 1 in 6 Americans, Mr. Gillette notes.
If baseball is more popular than ever, he says, why did Major League Baseball produce a commercial this fall featuring former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, exhorting viewers to watch postseason games even if their team isn't playing? "Real fans don't hide in October," he chided.
One expert who believes that baseball has turned a corner is John Kuenster, editor of the Baseball Digest, who has reported on the game for more than 50 years. But he notes a big caveat that he says is undermining baseball's appeal.
"Ticket prices today are just so expensive now. It's hard for a parent to take their kids to the ballpark enough times to get them really interested in the game," he says.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics and a specialist on the business side of baseball at Smith College, is more sanguine. While noting "some ambiguity and complexity" in TV ratings, he sees a boom rather than looming bust in baseball's future. Revenue across the board, from ticket sales to Internet sales of clothing, have produced gains of as much as 12 percent per year over the past 11 years, he says.
"It's really the postseason where ratings are down a bit, and part of that has to do with the contest and the teams involved," he says. "Yes, baseball needs to get the games broadcast earlier in the day. It's no secret baseball has areas where it can improve. But overall, it's a smashing success story."
But revenue is not the best measure, Gillette says, because the business side of baseball is getting better at mining the Internet and other venues. Meanwhile, young potential fans are treated to "baseball as carnival," he says. The new parks may draw people for the experience, but do parks that offer computer games and Ferris-wheel rides – such as at Detroit's new Comerica Park – produce long-term fans?
You won't find apologies among baseball executives, who also cite growing interest in the game overseas and growth in minor-league attendance. "I don't think baseball's appeal is fragile," says Bob DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball. "The trend lines are all very positive. This is one of the peak periods, if not the peak period, in the history of baseball."
Still, there is little question of increased competition for consumers' entertainment dollars. Only 50 years ago boxing, horseracing, and baseball were principal American pastimes.
"We have to continue to be vigilant to see that baseball remains relevant to the next generation of fans," Mr. DuPuy says. But the acid test may be what happens to the puppy love felt for baseball by the likes of Zach Stalhman and Patrick Moroney, two seventh-graders who attended the game Tuesday night with Patrick's dad.
Zach and Patrick attended the Red Sox blowout of the Cardinals' in 2004, a huge disappointment. But they're back to support the team. Zach goes to maybe five to six games a year and may watch 50 on TV. But a lot of the two boys' friends are immersed in other sports and computer games, the pair agree.
For these guys, though, baseball is still the thing. "There are just so many other teams playing in the Series now that the Yankees aren't in it so much," Patrick says. "It just seems like more fans can get interested."