On Wednesday, two things happened which shaped the column you’re about to read. They were both conversations, and both centered around baseball, a subject which seems to consume less of my time by the day. Let alone by the year.
The first conversation happened when I co-hosted a radio show with my buddy Marc Ryan. Marc is the morning drive guy on 100.3 The Ticket in Florida, and when I came on with him for the 8 o’clock hour on Wednesday, the discussion began with baseball. Is it a slowly dying sport? Or just one which needs to be modernized a bit? Marc, thought the former. Quite a few of his callers agreed.
The second conversation came with my buddy Steve, who I was visiting in Boston later that afternoon (Ironically I went up to go to a Red Sox game). Understand that Steve is one my best friends in the world and one of my the nicest people you’ll ever meet, not to mention someone who loves baseball about as much as Tiger Woods loves women not named Elin Nodregren. So when he piped up and asked me why I’d been taking cheap shots at baseball in my columns the last few weeks, it got my attention. Steve wasn’t being mean, just generally intrigued: Why wasn’t I writing more about baseball? And when I did, why was I always negative?
The answers to those questions are complicated.
The first is, that as a columnist the only way for me to gain your trust and readership is to write compelling content, content that is well thought out, with strong and intelligent opinions. And the truth is that I just haven’t watched enough baseball this season to have those strong and compelling opinions. You as readers deserve better than anything but a full-formed, well thought out column. I refuse to give you anything less.
Now the next question becomes, “Well why haven’t you been watching baseball?” That’s even more complicated.
Understand that growing up, I watched more baseball than any other sport; quite frankly, it really wasn’t even close. I’m a Red Sox fan by nature, and watched them plenty, but since they weren’t on TV every night, watched a very compelling Braves team quite a bit as well. Thanks to Ted Turner and TBS, Atlanta was on TV almost every night, and David Justice, Ron Gant and Tom Glavine became a part of my evening routine for most of the early 1990’s.
But as I’ve gotten older, things change and priorities change. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and enough days in the week to watch everything, meaning something has to go to the way-side. And for me, that something has been baseball.
Still, doesn’t answer the question of why I haven’t been watching baseball. A lack of time doesn’t stop me from spending every Saturday on the couch consuming college football and fried food equally. And it definitely doesn’t stop me from watching either college or pro basketball every night from right before Thanksgiving until right after Easter.
So what is it about baseball? Why am I tuning it out? And why are so many other casual sports fans right there with me?
Well, I’ve got three “big picture,” reasons that I think might help explain some things.
1. The Timing of The Game
Let’s be blunt: In the world we live in, there just isn’t enough time to block three hours out of your day, every day to watch baseball. You can do it with football, because you’re only committing one day a week, and you can do it in basketball because in most cases you only need to watch the last few minutes to get a “feel,” for a game. Miss the first three quarters of a basketball game, and it’s not a hindrance at all. Chances are you’ll still catch the best part down the stretch.
Baseball provides neither of those luxuries. It’s played three hours a day, and six days a week, meaning that if you want to really follow your team, you’re committing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours a week to them. And unlike like basketball, if you miss an inning or two, there’s a chance that you miss the most important parts of the game. You wouldn't believe how many times I’ve walked into the house this summer intending to watch baseball, flipped on a game, saw a one-sided score and turned it off. If the score is 7-1 in the fifth inning, it seems kind of trivial to watch from that point on, no?
Now granted, you can’t blame the amount of time it takes to play a baseball game on the sport itself. When you sign up for baseball as a fan, you know what you’re getting. These games can be long. That’s not a surprise.
At the same time, who has that kind of time to watch baseball? Unless you’re elderly, unemployed or reaaaaaaaaaaaaally bad with the ladies, who has the ability to commit three hours a day, six days a week to a team? I mean this isn’t 1950 or even 1990 anymore, there’s just too much going on. Our attentions spans are too short. Hell, I can’t even sit on the toilet without checking e-mail on my phone. And I’m supposed to sit there and watch baseball for three hours?
Let me close this rant with a final anecdote. Last year I was with my family on a trip to Camden Yards, when all of a sudden, right in the middle of a game, my mom and decided to take a walk. Her reasoning was, “I’m getting fidgety.”
A couple things here. The first is that by no means does my mom live her life in the fast lane. Quite the opposite actually; I bet if you asked her, she’d say that she likes to take things pretty slow. Her idea of a fun Friday night is taking the dog on a really long walk. As opposed to just a regular one.
Beyond that, I don’t know a single woman who enjoys baseball more than my mom. She grew up watching it with her father every Saturday, and as a parent attended hundreds of games of mine from my childhood. I played the sport from the ages of six to 18.
So with that said, I’ve got to ask: If this woman, who loves baseball as much as anyone can’t sit through a nine inning game without needing to stretch, what chance does anyone under 35 have?
2. Baseball Players Are Boring
Ok, so I know that’s a totally, random, obtuse statement to make, right? Let me explain.
In a way, sports are a lot like a caste system; you’ve got the superstars, the role players, the rookies, the goofy guys. And ultimately those players are really what draw us in. Yes, we all have our favorite teams, but when deciding what other teams to watch, isn’t it based on what players they have and whether or not those players are compelling? For example, when you flip on a Heat-Bulls game, are you watching it because of the Heat and Bulls? Or are you watching because LeBron James and Derrick Rose happen to play for those particular teams? Just for argument’s sake, I’m guessing that you didn’t watch nearly as many Cleveland Cavaliers games after LeBron left, then while he was there. Right?
Well, who are the guys in baseball that are interesting enough to turn on, regardless of whom their team is playing? In the NBA we have a dozen guys like that. The NFL has Manning, Vick, Brees, Rogers and Brady. Baseball? Well, I guess there’s Jeter and A-Rod. Then, maybe Pujols? Maybe a pitcher like Verlander or Lincecum. Then that’s really it, right?
And that brings me in a roundabout way to my point: This league is lacking star power. Even the young guys who should be shining like Griffey, Bonds and Frank Thomas did a generation ago, just aren’t interesting, or at the very least aren’t marketed right. For example, I like Evan Longoria, and I’m sure he’s a good guy. But at no point in my life have I sat there and said, “Damn, are the Rays on? I need me some Evan Longoria!” Same with Joe Mauer. And as for Ryan Braun? I can’t say for certain that I’d even know what Braun looked like if he was standing next to me in the grocery store. And I write about sports for a living. Not a good look.
Here’s the other thing too. While sports will always be about star power, basketball and football also thrive in a lot of ways because of some guys who aren’t nearly as talented, but are great “personalities.” Ochocinco might not be a better wide receiver than Larry Fitzgerald. But I’d bet for damn sure that are a lot of people who don’t watch the NFL every Sunday that could point Chad Ochocinco out of a crowd. Same with Ron Artest. I don’t know that he was ever one of the 15 best players in the NBA. He was at times one of the 15 most recognizable though.
Why? It’s because those guys are interesting. They’re quotable. They get funny haircuts, weird tattoos in strange places and change their last names to arbitrary foreign numbers. But they’ve got personality. Something that baseball players seem to lack.
I mean honestly, who could you describe in baseball as a true “personality.”? Someone who be crazy fun to hang out with? Just about the only guy who fits that description in my mind is David Ortiz. Otherwise, who else? Brian Wilson’s act is getting more uncomfortable than dinner with your 40-year-old, unmarried aunt, and Nick Swisher’s isn’t much better. Really, couldn’t you make the case that besides Ortiz, Ozzie Guillen is more entertaining than any player in the sport? Am I imagining that?
But with all that said, here’s my bigger fundamental question: Does being a boring person in general, lend itself to being a better baseball player?
Think about it. When you hear analysts on TV talking about a player, what’s the great compliment they can give? That a player is “consistent,” right? That they don’t get too high or too low. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Baseball is a sport where even the best players only succeed 30 percent of the time, and where you can hit a bad slump at any point in the season.
So in a way, doesn’t it make sense that baseball players would be boring dudes in general? As much as we love seeing emotion and passion from our football and basketball players, aren’t those two of worst characteristics a baseball player can have? I’d say so.
Finally onto the last thing. And it’s maybe the most important.
3. Different Teams Are Playing For Different Things
You know the numbers as well as I do. The Yankees will pay $200 million in player salaries this year. One of their chief competitors in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays will spend $40 million. It doesn’t take a Harvard math major to know those numbers are out of whack.
But while everyone is constantly discussing the disparity of rich vs. poor in baseball, they’re missing an even bigger theme. That theme is that not only has baseball is beyond unbalanced; everyone in the league has a different end game. For some, it’s a World Series title. For others it’s just trying to keep their head above water. Shouldn’t every team in a professional sports league be competing for the same thing?
Again, let me explain. And to do so, let me use a quote from my friend Mallory. We were at the Red Sox-Royals game the other day, and Mallory, a Royals fan, said the following to me when the Royals fell behind in the middle of the game. She said, “Man my mean team totally sucks. But you know what? I’m not even mad. They were so fun to watch at the beginning of the year, that I don’t even care. It’s all gravy from here.”
And that’s when it hit me: Mallory and I are both rooting for Major League Baseball teams. But we each have totally different agendas as fans.
For me as a Red Sox fan, I don’t think that it’s a big secret to say that we expect to win the World Series. Will we win it every year? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the expectation isn’t there, especially with all the money the organization spent in the off-season. When Theo Epstein splurged on Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in a couple week span this winter, the onus was clear: “Not making the playoffs is unacceptable. We are going to do whatever it takes to get back there. Money be damned.”
But the Royals? Although in theory they’re competing for the same thing the Red Sox are (a World Series title), that has to be the furthest thing from minds of their fans. From the best I can tell, the only goal as a Royals fan is to have a team that is entertaining enough that you actually enjoy watching them by midseason. It’s a modest goal, but as Mallory said it herself, “The team was fun to watch.” In Boston “fun to watch” doesn’t mean anything if you’re not winning games. In KC, it’s a reason to celebrate. I’m guessing that fans of the Marlins, Pirates, Blue Jays, A’s, Orioles and Indians feel the same way.
And that to me, is the most frustrating part of baseball right now.
Look, it’s easy to just sit there and say, “Going into the season half the teams have no chance of winning the World Series.” But again, that statement doesn’t go far enough. In that sense, it’s no different than the NBA, where really, only 3-4 teams seem capable most years of taking home a title.
But unlike Major League Baseball, there’s always hope. The Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors might be bad now, but in theory, there’s always a chance that things can improve. If they draft well, sign some smart free agent deals and avoid injuries, it isn’t totally inconceivable that they could one day have a contender. If it happened for Oklahoma City, it can happen for anyone, right?
Well in baseball, what’s the best that a small-market club can hope for? They can draft well, be smart in free agency, spend every dollar wisely, and then what? In a best case scenario, they have a 1-2 year window where they’re legit contenders, before they have to start selling off assets like a broke college kid trying to pay the electric bill. Again, the Rays won the American League East last season. And now they’ve got the second lowest payroll in baseball, after seemingly every important player off last year’s roster left. That’s supposed to get me excited to follow the sport of baseball?
And really, I think that’s the biggest problem going in baseball. If you’re a fan of the Indians, Royals, Brewers or Orioles, what impetus do you have to show up at the park every day? To root for your team? Why? They’re practically not even playing the same sport as the Yankees and Red Sox! Think about it. One true small-market team has won a World Series since baseball’s salary structure went totally out of whack a decade ago, the 2003 Florida Marlins. That’s it.
In the end, you could go with a million different reasons as to why the sport of baseball could be in trouble. You could talk about declining attendance, or sagging TV ratings. But even those stats are misleading. After all, there’s a reason that people use the phrase, “There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics.
Ultimately though, I’ll go back to the conversation that Marc and I had on Wednesday, and an important point we hit on. It was the following: If there was ever a summer that we should be talking baseball, this is it. There are quite literally, no other distractions. The NBA is locked out right now, and the NFL was too until a week ago. There are no Olympics or major international events to take our attention away. Yet other than the melodrama with the Dodgers, when are we ever talking baseball?
Instead, we’re talking about the sport less than ever before.
To put it in another context, let me ask you this: When was the last time you and your buddies were sitting in a bar, and a “Who’s better, Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander,” argument broke out? Probably not nearly as recently as the last Kobe vs. LeBron, or Brady vs. Manning debate.
Which is a bummer. Baseball used to be something that consumed my life. Now it’s a small distraction when I have 15 minutes to kill before bed. And I’m positive that I’m not alone.
As Marc said to me that day, “Whenever I try and talk baseball on my show, all I get is crickets.”
It’s not just on the radio either.
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)