What's Wrong With Baseball?

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Over at the New Yorker, Ben McGrath has a brief, characteristically thoughtful essay up about a question that people have been asking basically for as long as the game has been played but which, lately, seems to actually have something to it: What's wrong with baseball?

As he freely concedes, going by measures like attendance and revenue, everything is just fine, and this is where a lot of partisans are happy to leave it. More people are going to games, and players and owners are making more money, than ever before; definitionally, nothing is wrong at all.

The problem is that this obviously isn't right. Baseball has as talented a cohort of young players as it's had in a long time right now—Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen and Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu and Andrelton Simmons and on and on—and yet they're all basically anonymous. Meanwhile, the dismal ratings for baseball's jewel events reflect the reality that baseball is now essentially a regional game, its success more a function of a bubble in television rights fees and of the money and free time its aging fanbase has with the kids out of the house and retirement approaching than anything else. The economic argument that baseball is doing great and the cultural one that it's increasingly irrelevant, it turns, aren't so neatly separated. As McGrath asks, "Who will fill the seats vacated by Boomers after they come up lame?"

To answer that, it's probably worth remembering how we got here. To name just a few things, games really are too long and slow, with too little going on in them (the decrease in offense is almost entirely about out-of-control strikeout rates); there's ever-increasing competition from other sports; youth participation is down for all sorts of complex reasons; and the introduction of the unbalanced schedule did more than most people realize to make baseball an even more intensely regional game. Given all that and whatever else you can come up with, it makes sense that baseball is in a relative decline.

The main issue, though—and something that McGrath curiously doesn't bring up—is probably just that baseball is now dealing with the consequences of having spent a solid decade telling anyone who would listen that baseball is awful and no one should watch it.

Let's take a normal 25-year-old, born in 1989. He would have spent his formative years as a sports fan in the immediate aftermath of a canceled World Series, hearing that greedy players were destroying the game and that the dynastic Yankees team dominating the sport was such an affront to its competitive integrity that drastic measures had to be taken to give other teams any kind of chance at winning. He would have heard about the commissioner touring the country threatening to abolish various teams, some of them successful ones. He would have seen the league enthusiastically cooperating with a congressional investigation that all but treated many of its most famous players as criminals; the league touting an owner-written report claiming that those players were frauds, cheats, and liars; and the league and the government working together with small-time con men to destroy the very best of those players.

From the perspective of owners, all of this made sense. A majority of owners had an interest in (falsely) claiming that their teams just couldn't compete, because they wanted to rig a system where they would be all but guaranteed profits. They had an interest in depicting players as greedy, selfish cheats, both because it gave them back leverage they'd lost when they forced the cancellation of a World Series and because it appealed to the sensibilities of the well-off older people who were filling their stadiums. They had an interest in telling an entire generation not to think of any ballplayer as any kind of hero. The only problem, really, is that everyone listened.

There's no obvious reason why a 25-year-old would be an especially big baseball fan; there's no reason, having seen baseball ruin rather than protect the reputations of its best players, why the marketing companies that make great athletes transcendent stars would want to be involved in promoting Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw as something more than exceptional ballplayers; and there's no mystery in what's wrong here. The people running baseball told everyone that the game was broken and that the players—who weren't doing anything their peers in other sports weren't doing—were frauds. Meanwhile, rivals took a somewhat more sensible approach. Now the game has to deal with the consequences of people more or less buying the political line adopted by its management class, which involved depicting the very thing they were selling as not worth buying. The real question is whether they learned their lesson.

Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty