How to save the game: Make the experience for young beginners more interesting than tee-ball. And make the radio listener's experience more interesting, period.
The All-Star Game (scheduled for Tuesday in Minneapolis) brings with it discussion of how to fix major league baseball. The games are too long and lack the kind of nonstop action that engages today’s audiences. The designated-hitter rule and instant replay are abominations that undermine two of the best reasons to be a baseball fan — second-guessing managerial strategy and complaining about vision-impaired umpires (who, as it turns out, rarely are wrong in their calls at the bases). Young people — especially young people of color and new Americans — are choosing soccer, lacrosse or other sports over baseball.
It’s probably true that the money flowing into MLB insulates owners from making tough decisions to improve the game. Forbes reported that league revenue topped $8 billion for the first time last season. New national television contracts ensure even higher revenues for every team. Still, attendance is declining around the country, and that should be cause for concern.
Yes, existing rules that would speed the game should be enforced, and we should take a firm stand against more instant replay. But even while we wait for baseball moguls to stop counting money long enough to read the writing on the wall, other steps can strengthen fans’ emotional connections to the game. Here are two suggestions, one to better connect with young kids and one for the older crowd.
Start with the first experience most kids have with baseball — tee-ball. It is the most excruciatingly boring hour in all of sports. Baseball offers kids the chance to do four fun things — hit something, throw something, catch something and run. In tee-ball, the typical kid spends maybe a total of two minutes doing any of those and 58 minutes counting dandelions or admiring clouds.
What we have learned about education success is that kids learn to read until the third grade, then read to learn. In baseball, we have applied the opposite lesson. They are subjected to the equivalent of sitting passively while being read a story they don’t understand when they should be learning phonetics.
It’s great that the Twins and other major league teams are working to revive urban youth baseball. Now, let’s start even earlier. Get rid of tee-ball (and the next level in which parents or coaches pitch to the kids) and design a new game to teach fundamentals. Take two teams of 6-year-olds and create competition while developing specific skills. One group plays hotbox — a player tries to advance from one base to the next while two players from the opposing team toss a soft ball back and forth trying to apply a tag. Another group lines up at hitting tees. Kids are awarded points for hitting line drives. A third group competes to catch fly balls and throw accurately to a specific location. Every player is playing at all times, developing skills and doing things that are fun and make sense.
Meanwhile, baseball should reinvigorate its connection to fans through radio. Baseball is made for radio. A listener can hang on every pitch or keep up as background to other activities. But baseball on radio succeeds only when the announcers can bring the game to life. Not every team will have a Harry Caray, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully or Herb Carneal. But former players who have no more verbal range than to describe every softly hit ball as a “jam shot” or every fly a “pop-up,” whether it’s caught by the shortstop or an outfielder with his back to the wall (yes, Dan Gladden, I’m talking about you), make baseball almost unlistenable on radio.
Listen to broadcasts on satellite radio from ballparks around the country, and it’s clear that the presumed celebrity of former players now takes precedence over the ability to bring a game to life with words.
Baseball may not be able to speed the game by convincing multimillion-dollar players that they don’t need to adjust their batting gloves between every pitch or that walking around the mound several times won’t make the next pitch to Miguel Cabrera any easier. But at least we can make baseball fun for the next group of 6-year-olds and keep me awake with a radio broadcast equal to the excitement of a 2-0 game next time the Twins are on the West Coast.
Tom Horner is a Minnesota public-affairs consultant and long-suffering Twins fan.
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