Society has changed as well. Today our cities produce athletes weaned on the feats of Dan Marino and Michael Jordan, not Frank Thomas and Cal Ripken Jr. Basketball is the sport of the cities; football the sport of the towns. Baseball? That's the sport of the suburbs -- not the kids of the suburbs but the men who buy houses there, because baseball is now a sport for middle-aged fans.
"Obviously, the game itself is too slow, and that will always be a problem," says Jack Craig, a 29-year-old TV/radio critic for the Boston Globe. "The demographics for baseball viewers skew old because the audience is old. This generation of young viewers has learned to be impatient watchers. It's the MTV effect. I think that's why young people aren't fantasizing about being the next Ken Griffey Jr., like my generation did."
Look around. Is there anything that feels more like our American pastime than a fall weekend in October, with football on every channel? Or a weekend in late March, with six different NCAA basketball games -- all exciting -- showing in one afternoon? The Super Bowl, the Sweet Sixteen, New Year's Day, Michael, Shaq, and Sir Charles -- they all feel more American than the World Series. As a popular sport, baseball probably ranks fifth, behind the NFL, the NBA, college basketball, and college football.
It's easy to watch Ken Burns's Baseball miniseries on PBS and conclude that baseball is invincible, that it's too interwoven into our histories, that it cannot be endangered. Yet Burns's lavish nine-part special only featured interviews with people between the ages of 35 and 90. You didn't see any kids interviewed during that 18-hour series, did you? You didn't see a 16-year-old Boston native waxing poetically about when he was seven and he watched that ball roll through Bill Buckner's legs in the '86 World Series (that's because the play happened after midnight -- 12:34 am, to be exact).
And that's baseball's fault. By acquiescing to television instead of its young fans -- its customers of the future -- baseball shot itself in the foot with a cannonball.
"There's no question that baseball has wanted to target young people for years, but the networks made them start playoff games at 8:00," says Craig. "In the 1986 Series, baseball agreed to start Game 5 at 8:40 so NBC could run The Cosby Show at 8:00! That showed you who was in control at that time."
The Lifetime Baseball Guys in the media -- from Bob Costas to Gammons to George Will to Angell -- all zealously campaign for their game, believing that every time it's backed into a corner, the Pastime will prevail. They're wrong. The NBA is sexier. Football is rougher. Kids like them both. Not only do they want to be like Mike (as in the Gatorade commercial), but they want to be like Shaq and Drew and Penny and Emmitt. Why? Because they know those guys. They've followed guys like Penny Hardaway and Emmitt Smith from college to the pros, and they've seen all their TV commercials and all their replica jerseys on sale at the local FootLocker. To these kids, Penny flies around a basketball court and dunks on everyone in sight, while Ken Griffey Jr. stands in the middle of a baseball field watching grass grow.