In this final installment of what I would do to “fix” the major sports, I’m going to take the liberty of trading in my royalty for godhood. In the book of Revelation, John records Jesus’ words to the Ephesian church. Jesus praises them for their hard work and all they had accomplished. He admonishes them, however, with these words: “But you walked away from your first love-why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? Turn back! Recover your dear early love.” (Rev. 2:4-5 The Message). If I were god of sports, this would be my message to baseball. Once the “National Pastime” and the focal point of our sporting existence, baseball has suffered a tremendous fall in the past 20 years. How to get back? Return to what made baseball the stuff of James Earl Jones monologue in “Field of Dreams”: “all that once was good and can be again.”
Baseball has lost a generation (at least one) of fans. Though a cultural shift away from the more pastoral aspects of the game is part of the problem, baseball has done nothing to engender itself to the younger generation. I recommend Bud Selig, the owners, and players seriously consider the following “throwbacks” to return baseball to its glory:
1. Bring back doublehaders And not the “day/night” types we occasionally see now to make up rain dates where teams charge separate admissions for the games. No, schedule at least one home double-header per season for each team. Of all the money spent on bobbleheads and other giveaways, nothing would bring more folks to the ballpark than a summertime doubleheader. In these tough economic times, the opportunity for a family to get “2 for the price of 1” is an appealing notion.
2. Be more liberal with autographs/open up the stadiums earlier for batting practice I remember as a kid wanting to get down to the ballpark early enough to see my heroes taking their practice cuts. A throng of youngsters would take over the outfield seats eagerly awaiting a bomb by Bench or Perez. Afterward, the players would mill around by the bullpen and dugout and sign autographs. This kind of personal touch is needed in baseball again. Perhaps only golf can compete with baseball with the ability to get “up close and personal” with the fans. Baseball fans of all ages still thrill over the idea of grabbing a foul ball or getting the signature of their favorite player. Baseball should be more intentional about providing these opportunities.
3. Get rid of the late East Coast start times for post season games In any sport, the post season is what draws the casual fan. By starting games at 9 pm on the East Coast, baseball may make things easier on West Coast commuters, but they have lost a generation of younger viewers in the process. And only the dedicated fan is going to stay up for a midnight finish. Weeknight post season games should start no later than 8 pm. West Coasters would still be able to listen on the drive home and catch most of the game. Even with the trudging pace of post season games, most would be over in time for the local evening news and for kids to get a good night’s sleep. While we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt baseball to reserve some time on Saturdays to have some daytime World Series play either. Baseball has ceded that time to college football. A World Series game should take precedence over some early season SEC matchup.
4. Pick up the pace Some have called for a “pitch clock,” but I’d prefer giving umpires more discretion to keep batters in the box and pitchers on the mound. Umps could issue warnings to individuals or teams they feel are delaying the game like they do for throwing at hitters. If a batter or pitcher is taking too much time meandering about adjusting his cup, after the warning, the umpire could award a ball or strike against the offender. This would speed up the pace of the games and improve the quality of play all around.
To many like me, baseball is still the greatest game. It combines tremendous athletic skill, both power and agility, with a cerebral quality not found in any other sport. As popular as football has become in our culture, no one will be writing poetry about a strong safety decapitating a wide receiver. Fathers and sons don’t go out in the back yard and have a “form tackle.” It is THE American game, once great, and with a return to its former love, the fans, it can be again.