If you grew up playing Little League or any other variant of organized baseball, you are probably at least a little excited to know that major league pitchers and catchers begin reporting for spring training tomorrow.
That’s because if you played baseball, you are almost inevitably a fan of baseball. And to baseball fans, the start of a brand-new season is the most telling sign of a new spring - even when you are searching for a crocus in vain amid the snowdrifts of New England.
This week brings not only the promise of a new baseball season; it also brings a new commissioner to be the ultimate guardian of the major league version of the game. Rob Manfred, Jr., has actually been on the job for a few weeks, but he will have served as a baseball commissioner without baseball until the Reds, Giants, Indians, Phillies and Pirates open their camps tomorrow.
I received a letter - well, a blast email - from Manfred just after he took up his post, a week or so before the Super Bowl. Manfred’s message to me and my fellow baseball fans expressed gratitude and a sense of stewardship. “The mission before us is clear,” he wrote. “To honor the game’s history while welcoming new people to our great sport - people who will one day pass their love of baseball down through the generations.”
That goal is admirable. And Manfred, who is taking the reins at a time the sport is doing better than many naysayers will allow, seems to have a good grasp on how to achieve it.
Today about twice as many fans go to the average major league game as when I started following the sport in the 1960s. Five clubs drew 2014 attendance numbers over 3 million, and the league average attendance per game was 30,346. Beyond those who actually go out to the ballgame, those of us who are interested can watch nearly every game at home in full-color high definition on our giant screen televisions, especially if we pay for cable and have a DVR at our disposal. Even cord-cutters or fans on the go can watch on laptops, tablets or smartphones using MLB.tv. Back in the ‘60s, just a few games each week were televised, and some teams practically never saw national broadcasts at all. There are more ways than ever to watch your team of choice play.
By most measures, baseball is as healthy as it has ever been, or maybe better. It just doesn’t seem that way because we have so many more options for our leisure time and dollars. But Manfred is wise not to want to rest on baseball’s laurels. The very fact of all this new entertainment competition means baseball has to work harder to keep up. And baseball is not exactly inherited genetically, though it is passed from parent to child. As my generation gets older, new fans must take our place - and lovers of the game are, most often, people who played the game at some level, at some point in their lives.
Manfred understands this. He described his intention to make baseball at all levels more accessible, especially to those in underserved areas, by drawing closer ties between youth baseball and the big leagues. Many current baseball fans, including Manfred himself, trace the roots of their fandom back to childhood experiences. Whether these included going to games with a parent, following the career of a favorite player or playing Little League, baseball fans tend to be made early. It is smart for those who want the game to grow to make sure as many people have access as possible, no matter their background. After all, the next Giancarlo Stanton - or Mo’ne Davis - could come from anywhere. But first he or she will need a field to play on and a team to join. That team is likely to be made up of some of the very same people who will be cheering from the stands once the future stars hit the majors.
Sure, there is plenty in modern baseball for old fogeys like me to criticize. Replays? Blah. The designated hitter? An abomination that ruined the strategy of the game. The rise of pitching specialists, whose full-time job is to come into the game for just one inning, or maybe sometimes just one out? I could do without it, though it has led us to Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley and many other great closers.
Sure, ticket prices are high and concession prices seem outrageous, but the new ballparks are entertainment venues that hold their own quite well against theme parks, cineplexes and downtown entertainment districts. Baseball itself is still a beautiful game played on impossibly beautiful grass, using the same wooden bats (at least in the majors) and pretty much the same balls used by the likes of Ruth, Foxx and DiMaggio. The biggest difference is a change for the better: Now the players come in all colors and from all over the globe.
Us old-timers may grouse, but baseball is a better game, in better shape, than ever. The new commissioner has his work cut out for him to keep it moving forward. I wish him well.