By outward appearances, baseball in the state is doing very nicely.
Target Field, in its fifth season, is still a gem of a major league park. The independent minor league St. Paul Saints are moving into a new stadium next summer. The NCAA Division I Gophers have a new ballpark, and, for the first time ever, lights. The Northwoods League, a summer collegiate association, has six state teams in its thriving, 18-team league.
“Overall, compared to the past, I feel good about the state of baseball [in Minnesota],’’ Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “But it’s not without challenges.’’
And it’s how those challenges are answered that will determine whether all those glitzy new ballparks around the state are filled in the years to come. St. Peter believes that how the Twins fare at the top of the pyramid always will, in large part, determine baseball’s health in Minnesota. He’s optimistic that a wave a highly touted minor league talent will soon return the Twins to contending status, and reinvigorate what has been a sagging fan base at the new stadium.
But there are some who wonder whether even a winning major league team will be enough to keep baseball thriving here and elsewhere for the generations to come. Two major problems continue to dominate discussions about baseball’s future health: the lack of inner-city participation and corresponding future interest, especially American-born black youngsters, and the ongoing slow pace of the game, which has resulted in 3-plus-hour games being the norm at the big league level — the average MLB game was 3 hours, 2 minutes, 35 seconds through Sunday — leaving even many die-hard fans frustrated.
At baseball’s grass-roots level, the two issues are intertwined, according to Frank White, the coordinator of the Twins RBI youth program. Aside from the positions of pitcher and catcher, the game is too often considered to be boring to youngsters, White said.
“We need to figure ways to put the ball in play more for kids, and to make the game more exciting,’’ White said.
And if baseball can’t do that, well, football and basketball are attractive options.
“Kids this day and age like quick things, fast things and things that move along,’’ said RBI coach Steve Winfield, older brother of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. “Baseball has kind of sat on its laurels, if you ask me. Baseball is called America’s Pastime, but it’s been kind of been passed by — the NFL and the NBA have kind of shot past it.’’
Changing the perception
White said the RBI program has been successful in getting young blacks to try the game, but keeping them in the sport has proved to be a challenge. Part of it, he said, is the perceived lack of college scholarship opportunity. Division I baseball splits 11 ½ scholarships among its rosters, resulting in a number of partial scholarships. Football has 85 full scholarships, men’s basketball 13 full rides.
“If [inner-city] parents are thinking their son is a pretty good athlete and has a chance to make it, they generally pursue another sport,’’ White said. “Part of the challenge is that families don’t see the opportunity.’’
As the ranks of America-born players thin through the teenage years, the face of the game has taken on an unmistakable quality. This year less than 10 percent of major league players were American-born blacks.
“I can’t tell you how many times I hear kids of color, African-American kids, say, ‘Oh, you’re playing that white boys’ sport,’ ’’ White said. “That’s not said as a negative. That’s just the way they view it.’’
Can baseball change its face? And its pace?
St. Peter points out with pride that this year’s major league amateur draft produced the first Minnesota RBI alum to get selected — Onas FarFan, a 21st-round pick by the Twins.
“We’ve made improvements,’’ St. Peter said of the program’s goal to get more kids, especially those in the inner city, exposed to baseball. “Baseball can be a path for kids achieving dreams.’’
More challenges await
The Twins president also said major league officials have “been very focused over the course of the last several years on the pace of the game. It’s a significant issue, not just for kids playing but fans at all levels.’’
Baseball has other challenges as well. The rash of injuries requiring Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery is ravaging major league pitching staffs. There is ever-increasing competition for youth participation by such sports as soccer and lacrosse. And the Twins’ losing ways have not helped spark interest around the state.
This season, 16 major league teams are averaging fewer than 30,000 fans a game, compared with 13 teams during the 2013 season. The Twins are one of the teams moving to the under-30,000 category, averaging 30,588 last season and 27,759 this season.
“To be honest, we have to win,’’ St. Peter said. “I’ve always said the market rewards you for being competitive. There are enough entertainment options in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the entire Upper Midwest that if you’re not competitive, fans will vote with their feet, so to speak. I’m not pleased where we’re at, but I’m pretty optimistic about the future.
“I know this: The better the Twins do, it impacts participation at the youngest levels, all the way to tee-ball. We feel a responsibility with that, to do our job at the major league level.’’