Commentary

Debunking myth of baseball's demise

Originally Published: September 15, 2010
By Jim Caple | Page 2

A lot of people say that baseball is no longer our national pastime. And they're right. That's because the new national pastime is bashing baseball.

At least, that's the media's favorite pastime, apart from keeping as many people as possible as scared as possible as often as possible. No matter what happens, the media trashes baseball, while lavishing a man-crush of praise on the NFL. No matter the facts, the storyline is always that baseball is as hopelessly irrelevant and stubbornly out-of-date as dial-up connections, VHS tapes and intelligent political debate. Critics throw so many beanballs and cheap shots at baseball that you practically need to don batting helmets and protective cups just to listen to talk radio or read a column.

Meanwhile, the media slobber like an overheated Saint Bernard over the NFL, overlooking the appalling way the league treats both its players (no guaranteed contracts in a violent sport where injuries shorten careers and careers shorten lives) and fans (overpriced tickets, blackouts, shameless franchise shifts back in the 1990s, etc.). For the NFL to receive bad publicity, a star quarterback pretty much needs to run a dogfighting ring.

This is how the media go after the most important, far-reaching topic in the NFL:

MEDIA: There are some medical studies showing a high level of concussions in your sport which can lead to long-term brain damage. How do you respond?

NFL: Look, a shiny object!

MEDIA: Really? Where?

Meanwhile, this is how the media cover baseball:

BASEBALL: The Padres are in first place despite a payroll of $38 million, second-lowest in the game. The Rangers are in first place despite a payroll lower than all but 25 teams. The Reds are in first place despite a payroll lower than two-thirds of the league. The Rays were in first place Monday despite a payroll lower than 60 percent of the majors.

MEDIA: No one has a chance except big-market teams! The Yankees win every year! And Roger Clemens is a liar! What sort of example is he setting for our youth? Fortunately, none of them care about baseball anymore because the sport is dying! By the way, what's the line on the Jets-Patriots game?

Enough already. It's time to go beyond the media hype and compare the real popularity between baseball and the NFL.

Media Fallacy No. 1: Baseball is dying but the NFL is thriving.

I think blowhards began claiming that baseball was dying even before Bob Sheppard's voice changed, yet the game stubbornly persists, growing revenues, adding fans and drawing crowds at near-record levels. Yes, attendance has been down during this recession -- by less than one-half percent this year. That's a whopping 128 fans per game in one of the worst economies in recent memory. The Brewers are 12 games below .500 and play in about the smallest market in baseball, and they're averaging nearly 35,000 per game. Meanwhile, NFL season-ticket sales are down for the third consecutive year.

Baseball is dying? Right. Amazing how it took in a record $6.6 billion last year from its death bed.

Media Fallacy No. 2. Young fans don't watch baseball anymore.

If this is true, then why are there always so many kids standing ahead of you in the line for helmet sundaes or spilling your drink as they constantly go to the bathroom?

If you need to see a lot of kids at a sporting event, you can either go to Travis Henry's annual family touch football game, or you can go to any major or minor league baseball game. Every Sunday, the Mariners and many other teams allow fans to walk on the field, and there is such a parade of kids it's as if they were giving away free candy and video games. And the kids aren't there because their parents "dragged" them to the games. I mean, c'mon -- what kids are made to do anything they don't want to do these days? Besides, the kids I see at games are smiling and shouting so happily you would think they just canceled school for the rest of their lives.

Media Fallacy No. 3: Every team has a chance in the NFL but only big-market teams have a chance in baseball.

If the NFL is so fair and equitable to one and all, how come my boyhood team, the Vikings, haven't gone to the Super Bowl in 33 years? Good lord, the Pirates have won a World Series since Minnesota last reached the Super Bowl (and the Twins have won two World Series).

In the past 10 seasons, the NFL has had seven different champions. Baseball has had eight. In that same period, the NFL has had 14 different teams play in its championship game. Baseball also has had 14. If baseball's playoffs started today, half the teams would be new from last year (San Diego, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Atlanta) and half would be from small markets (San Diego, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota). (No doubt the Giants and Rockies also would be shocked and very upset that the final two-and-a-half weeks of the season were inexplicably canceled.)

I'd say the two leagues are pretty even -- both have their powerful teams and their incompetent doormats. But this perception that the NFL has more parity is due to media hype and the fact that the league allows almost 40 percent of its teams into the playoffs while baseball lets in barely a quarter of its teams. Letting more teams into the playoffs doesn't give you parity, it just allows worse teams into the postseason.

Media Fallacy No 4: The NFL is a ratings monster while baseball is a ratings disaster.

Undoubtedly, the NFL enjoys great ratings and almost obscene national TV revenue. But we're comparing apples to oranges here. If baseball played only one day a week, on a day most of the country's workers and students have off, in a season of the year when most people stay inside to avoid bad weather, we can safely assume the ratings per baseball game would rise dramatically. But baseball's cumulative ratings are still such that some teams have local contracts that, combined with their share of the national deal, approach NFL territory.

The NFL is a ratings monster, no question about it. But when you consider the local broadcast packages, baseball does extremely well, too.

(Oh, and while we're on the subject -- just imagine how the media would portray Bud Selig if he left the nation's second-biggest broadcast market without a team. ESPN would have to add another "Around the Horn" to the programming schedule to express all the outrage.)

Media Fallacy No. 5: The NFL has a strict drug-testing policy while baseball's policy is a joke.

The NFL's "strict" drug-testing policy (which somehow missed several players on the Panthers' Super Bowl team) is widely praised while baseball's policy, which has tougher penalties, is routinely criticized. In particular, baseball takes heat for not testing for HGH in the majors, even though it tests in the minors -- the NFL does not test for HGH at all -- and more importantly, there is no agreement on whether there is a reliable test for it yet anyway.

The more important question, however, is not which league catches the most cheats (neither league really wants to alienate fans by catching too many players) but which league ultimately leaves its athletes healthier. Is it football, where the levels of heart disease, arthritis and brain damage are truly frightening? Or baseball, where there are few, if any, such concerns?

Let me put it this way: Which body and brain would you choose to live with for the rest of your life: that of a former NFL lineman or that of a former outfielder?

Don't get me wrong. The NFL is incredibly popular (thanks in part to gambling and fantasy leagues). But despite what the media would have you believe, so is baseball. The game is healthy and thriving. While baseball has some issues, the ones facing the NFL (concussions topping the list) are far more serious. And we'll find out just how rock-solid the league is next year if there is a player strike or lockout.

Sigh. I guess it could be worse. I could be an NHL fan.

CSI: BOX SCORE

Here's how our game works. Each week you get a fragment from an old box score and must solve the mystery of what game it was from and why it was significant. I give this one a difficulty rating of 7.5. (Hint: Look at the score.) Answer at the bottom of the column.

BASEBALL CARD OF THE WEEK

Bo Jackson
Courtesy of ScoreIf there's one thing that Bo knows is that he's done hearing "Bo knows."

Now that football season is in full gear, here's a classic card (1990 Score No. 697) showing Bo Jackson wearing football pads and holding a baseball bat across his shoulders. This card came out during the peak of the great "Bo Knows" commercial blitz, an ad campaign that still resonates. Which must be rather annoying for Bo. He played in the celebrity softball game before the All-Star Game in Anaheim and I followed him just long enough to hear almost everyone he passed yell "Bo knows!'' at him.

By the way, Bo paused to watch fireworks that night with MC Hammer, which would have been somewhat bigger news in 1990.

BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK

Cleveland's Mitch Talbot had a rough day Sunday, walking the first batter he faced on five pitches, giving up singles to the next two batters and then leaving with an injury to become the sixth starter this season to leave a game without retiring a single batter (0 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 K). Meanwhile, Cincinnati reliever Jordan Smith threw nine pitches Monday, only one of them in the strike zone (0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 0 K).

David Price and CC Sabathia, on the other hand, gave us better performances when the two Cy Young candidates matched each other for eight scoreless innings Monday in the Rays' 1-0, 11-inning shutout over the Yankees. Their lines:

Sabathia 8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K

Price 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

Was that a possible ALCS preview? We'll have to see, but it was a pretty rare thing. Elias reports that the game marked the first matchup in 25 years between two pitchers who each had at least 17 wins and both threw at least eight scoreless innings. The last previous game was Sept. 11, 1985 when John Tudor (17-8) shut out Dwight Gooden (20-4) and the Mets for 10 innings. Gooden threw nine scoreless innings before being removed for a pinch-hitter and Jesse Orosco gave up the game's only run in the 10th.

DONNY, YOU'RE OUT OF YOUR ELEMENT

• Last week, the Athletics gave Dallas Braden a ring with 88 diamonds (yes, 88 diamonds!) to commemorate his perfect game earlier in the season. If players are getting 88-diamond rings for single-game performances, what would someone get for winning the Triple Crown? Good lord, they would need a noggin the size of Mr. Met (or Bruce Bochy) to wear the crown properly. It's not going to happen this year, though. Since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown in 1967, 41 players have won two legs of the crown but no one has picked up the elusive third leg -- and no one has led his league in both batting and home runs. And Albert Pujols' recent home run binge likely knocked Carlos Gonzalez out of the running unless the Rockies play all their remaining games at home. Despite the Coors Field humidor, Gonzalez's home/road splits are off the chart. He's hitting .385 with 25 home runs and 67 RBIs at home and .288 with seven home runs and 34 RBIs on the road. (Of course, Yaz gained his own home-field advantage in 1967, hitting .332, 27, 74 at Fenway and .321, 17, 47 on the road.)

• Best wishes for Bob Feller, who has leukemia at age 91. As my friend, Scooter, says, leukemia doesn't realize it, but it picked the world's toughest 91-year-old.

CSI: BOX SCORE ANSWER

This was the box score from the infamous Merkle's Boner, when the Giants' 19-year-old Fred Merkle neglected to touch second base on a hit to the outfield that should have scored the winning run from third on Sept. 23, 1908. But as detailed in G.H. Fleming's "The Unforgettable Season,'' the rule about forceouts and runs wasn't fully understood at the time and the Cubs took advantage of the confusion by forcing Merkle out at second base for the final out, nullifying the hit and the run. The game ended in a tie (due to darkness by the time everything was sorted out), as did the regular season, forcing the Cubs and Giants into a decisive one-game playoff. The Cubs won the playoff and the pennant, and eventually, the World Series. It remains the last World Series won by the Cubs and one of the few times you can refer to someone's boner and not have it censored.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.


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