Strike three- is baseball out?
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
Strike one- my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals lost in the playoff championship series. No biggie. There's always next year.
Strike two- they lost ugly. Barely scoring any runs and striking out 48 times in four sad games. The fans are restless and will be expecting changes next year.
Strike three- this may be an indication of a long-term decline for the entire sport of baseball. The nation's pastime that I've followed since childhood may be irrelevant by the time my children reach my age.
This past season has shown a significant decline in both television viewership and major league attendance, both in baseball heaven, St. Louis, and around the country. Empty seats abounded everywhere, and neither players nor management seem to know what to do about it. Ratings for the series just completed hit a record low. I can remember when people camped out in front of Busch Stadium to be first in line to get playoff tickets, but this year they were selling during the playoffs for $5-$15 on the secondary market. Unthinkable!
I call St. Louis baseball heaven because no team has as devoted a fan base as the Cardinals. They are baseball fanatics and have enjoyed a storied franchise. Even more important, they contribute to the civic identity of St. Louis and bridge divides like nothing else. I can greet anyone- white or black, liberal or conservative, old or young, and say "how about those Cardinals?" and it's like we are best friends. Even among rivals like the Cubs and Royals fans, there is a mutual respect and admiration that transcends geography.
In an age when there are fewer and fewer institutions that everybody recognizes and agrees with, we need baseball as much as it needs us. And St. Louis certainly needs the Cardinals- one of the only unifying things in a community split by race, geography and way too many municipalities.
I grew up with the Cardinals of the 60's- Brock, Gibson, Shannon and McCarver, and I can't quite pinpoint where things started going wrong. Ticket prices have skyrocketed since my childhood, which is a big factor. Season tickets I had in the 80's at $9.50 per game are now over $100, which is why I'm no longer a season ticket holder. Prices have risen way more than the inflation rate and average fans are having a hard time keeping up. Games that were once free on television now are only available with expensive cable packages. Free agents are demanding and getting salaries that defy gravity. Food, parking, and ticket fees have risen as well, making each game an expensive proposition.
I suspect that the Cardinals are aware that their games are less popular, which may be why they are looking to other gimmicks to fill the stands. "Theme" nights and giveaways are more numerous than ever to bribe fans to return. More confounding, they are turning Busch Stadium into more of a gourmet restaurant than a baseball venue, with all-inclusive tickets that include food and drink, plus fancy restaurant fare that outclasses peanuts, popcorn and cracker jack. It's like you go to eat and catch a game on the side if it ever gets interesting.
Besides the exorbitant costs, the games have gotten long, dull, and boring. The villain there may be the slavish devotion to sabermetrics by managers and executives that shrinks the game into an enormous and confounding spreadsheet. Sabermetrics were popularized by Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, and they have transformed the game since 2000. Gone are the gut instincts and intangibles like teamwork, passion, and luck. Everything is based on stats. And, like a computer screen loaded with numbers, it's no fun to watch most of the time.
One huge change that can be blamed on this new emphasis is the rise in strikeouts. Strikeouts have increased every year for a decade, to the point now where there are more strikeouts than hits in most games. More pitchers are pitching, and they are pitching harder and faster than ever because they aren't expected to stay in that long. Excessive pitching changes slow down the game and give pitchers an advantage over hitters. Batters are swinging more for home runs, a byproduct of the regrettable steroid era, and coming up short. Sabermetrics values walks and being hit by pitches, which incentivizes players to take more good pitches and strike out looking. There are more pitches being made, more foul balls, and deeper counts per at bat.*
Not only are there more strikeouts, but there are fewer balls that are put into play, with base running and defense becoming less important. Watching player after player strike out or walk is pure poison for both the devoted fan and those who are new to the game. The game only comes alive when runners are on the bases and fielders are diving for line drives. Watching pitch after pitch with no result is akin to watching paint dry.
Mind you, I'm not making excuses for the Cardinals and their 48 strikeouts. They deserved to lose. But this is bigger than the Cardinals. Since 1990, the percentage of strikeouts per plate appearance for all teams has shot up from 13.8% to 23% this year. ** Fans need more interesting games if MLB wants them to continue to shell out the increasing costs of tickets and tv packages. There are plenty of other entertaining things that they can turn to as baseball loses its appeal.
As one of the elite markets, the Cardinals have far to go before they reach the depths we now see in Miami, where only an average of 10,000 souls brave each home game. But it will happen here too, especially if only four or five viable franchises remain. Major changes need to be made- cheaper tickets, lowered mounds further from home, fewer pitching changes, and more of an effort to make games exciting again. Purists will resist changes, but there just aren't enough of them left to keep the game from dying off. Fans need to speak up and let Major League Baseball know what would help the game. Future generations depend on us keeping this institution popular and entertaining.
Sure the rosters will change between now and next spring, but the same problems will continue unless changes are made. Some teams will get better, some will get worse, and fans will continue to drift away. The Cardinals may sign some free agents or make some trades, but the games will continue to get longer and more devoid of action unless something is done.
You can make a difference right now by contacting your Rob Manfred, major league commissioner at 245 Park Avenue, NY,NY 10167, and Bill Dewitt at 700 Clark St., St. Louis, MO 63102. While you're at it, contact the players union at firstname.lastname@example.org , because nothing happens without them.
* I can't back up this claim with any statistics because nobody measures it. I still believe it to be true.
** I can back up this number with statistics, readily available on Baseballreference.com.