John McGrath

John McGrath: Reports of baseball’s death are greatly exaggerated — since 1868

Signs of baseball’s good health: The average attendance at an MLB game last season was 30,519, and the Mariners franchise — once fragile — is now valued at about $1.1 billion.
Signs of baseball’s good health: The average attendance at an MLB game last season was 30,519, and the Mariners franchise — once fragile — is now valued at about $1.1 billion. The Associated Press, 2015

Major League Baseball lucked into a blockbuster for the nightcap of its season-opening tripleheader Sunday: the New York Mets at the defending champion Kansas City Royals.

The game already was on the 2016 schedule before the teams squared off in a 2015 World Series notable for the kind of contentiousness that found Mets starter Noah Syndergaard turning the first pitch of Game 3 into a high-and-tight statement meant to intimidate Royals leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar, in particular, and any teammates who valued their cheekbones, in general.

Rumors abound that the Royals are planning retribution — love ’em or loathe ’em, it’s how they roll — which is another reason for casual fans to watch the ESPN telecast.

A day later, when the Nielsen ratings are revealed, this dream scenario for opening day will show a national television audience significantly smaller than, say, a midseason game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets. Still more evidence, as the acclaimed media philosopher Marshall McLuhan put it in 1969, that “baseball is doomed.”

McLuhan wasn’t the first person to forecast the doom awaiting baseball. He wasn’t even the first person to forecast it during the ’60s.

“Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or 10 years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well, but I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings.”

Peter O’Brien, captain of the Brooklyn Atlantics, shared those suspicions about baseball’s long-term health. ...

In 1868.

It’s been nearly 15 decades since Peter O’Brien chided his peers for not playing the game the right way, and throughout each of those decades, a conventional premise has held that baseball’s descent into irrelevance is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

An 1892 article in the Boston Journal reported that baseball’s popularity was threatened by bicycling, America’s new national pastime. Uh, no, but the prediction didn’t stop a pundit at the Colorado Springs Gazette from writing, in 1917, that baseball soon would lose its luster to trap shooting.

“The modern young man takes up a sport he can actually do,” the Gazette’s version of Marshall McLuhan opined. “No longer is he to be a bench warmer.”

Although the notion that trap shooting would become more popular than baseball draws some guffaws, the Gazette’s prophecy was accurate in one sense: It brought the attention span of the “modern young man” into the conversation.

Kids these days don’t follow baseball anymore, I keep hearing, because their frenetic attention spans aren’t compatible with the sport’s slow pace and long season. Kids these days are more prone to spend a sunny afternoon indoors, playing games on a computer, than outdoors, playing baseball.

Fair points, but look deeper. Many of those computer games the kids are playing involve fantasy-league baseball. Aside from the All-Star break, there’s at least one MLB game on the schedule every day, from April to October.

Advanced media is not detrimental to baseball. To the contrary, it helps explain how MLB revenues have produced 13 consecutive years of record growth.

Consider the Mariners, a once-fragile business operation whose relocation from Seattle was all but assured before Nintendo purchased the club, in 1992, for $100 million. The Mariners today are worth about $1.1 billion, thanks to a regional broadcasting network that delivers an audience for advertising sponsors six times a week.

Television ratings for baseball’s showcase events — the All-Star Game, the World Series — never will approach those of 50 years ago, when there were only three networks and one national game a week, shown on Saturday afternoon. Doesn’t matter. When viewers are offered 300 options instead of three, all that matters are local ratings in prime time, and on that score, the Mariners clean up.

You might presume such television access to every home game would produce a corresponding drop in attendance throughout baseball. Why deal with the hassles and expenses of seeing a game in person when the alternative is so convenient?

Heck if I know, but I’ll throw one theory against the wall and see if it sticks: Because attending a baseball game with your family, or your friends, is fun?

In any case, the average attendance at an MLB game last season was 30,519. Some perspective, pertinent to the notion that baseball is dying, is in order.

When Roger Maris’ successful bid to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record came down to the last game in 1961, a New York crowd of 23,154 showed up to watch the Yankees’ outfielder hit No. 61. This was a year after Ted Williams, in the words of John Updike, “bid the Hub adieu” by connecting for a home run on the last swing of his career.

Fenway Park was occupied by 10,454 fans that day. A more generous turnout for Williams, I can only presume, was impeded because everybody else in Boston was bicycling to the trap-shooting range.

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