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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Out of Right Field: Baseball must find a way to avoid becoming irrelevant in sports-culture landscape

UPDATED: Sat., June 29, 2019

The past, at least the past almost two decades, hasn’t been kind to the Seattle Mariners. The present isn’t much better, what with their under .500 record and public proclamations this is a rebuilding … sorry … “step-back” season.

It’s the future we are supposed to be excited about. The next generation of players. The ones the M’s are stockpiling for the not-too-distant future. The players who will lead the organization to the Promised Land.

But what if the players Jerry Dipoto has targeted for that task no longer have the right skill set to finish the job? If what they can do isn’t valued anymore? In other words, what if the game changes between now and that promised-to-be-successful future?

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that baseball is going to have to change if it wants to avoid becoming irrelevant in our sports-culture landscape.

You want proof? Just look at the major league attendance numbers, which have been dropping for nearly a half-decade. And the slide continues this year.

Last season marked the third consecutive year Major League Baseball’s attendance has fallen, with the total number of fans at the average game finishing 4% below 2017 and less than 88% of the best year, 2007.

That’s not good.

It’s been even worse this season, with the average attendance down to 27,569 per game. That’s almost 700 less per game than this time last season. And, remember, that was the worst year since 2003.

If that’s not enough for you, check out the television ratings. Yes, local broadcasts do well – when the teams are winning. But not everyone wins. The two biggest ratings drop in 2018 came from the Baltimore Orioles (115 losses and a 56% decline) and the Detroit Tigers (98 losses and a 42% decrease).

With more teams taking the rebuild route (like the Mariners), more teams will probably deal with declining ratings and revenue.

Meanwhile, national ratings for baseball continue to stagnant. Last year’s World Series, between two blue-blood franchises, the Dodgers and Red Sox, vividly illustrated the problem. The TV ratings were down about 25% and were the fourth worst of all time.

That’s not good either.

The most important question is, of course, why? What is different in baseball today than when it was in its glory, even if that glory has been diminishing for years?

It’s glaringly obvious. Baseball has become predictable. At-bats end in one of three outcomes more than a third of the time: a strikeout, a walk or a home run.

What was it that catcher-turned-philosopher Crash Davis said about strikeouts three decades ago – that they were boring – and fascist? They are, as are walks and home runs. Nobody is involved except the pitcher and the hitter. The other eight guys on the field are superfluous. So are the spectators.

When baseball passed 1,000 home runs in a season for the first time in 1922, the 1,055 accounted for just 4.1% of the total hits for the year.

Even as recently as 1998, the first year 5,000 balls left the park, the long ones only accounted for 11.4% of the hits. By 2017, when the game flew past 6,000 home runs for the first time (with 6,105), home runs accounted for 14.5% of the hits.

From 1950, the dawn of another power surge, to 2008, baseball also accumulated at least 10,000 more hits than strikeouts every year. Last season, for the first time, a strikeout occurred more often than a hit. That trend is continuing this season.

All of these occurrences contribute to another problem baseball is facing: Games are too long. If we look back at 1950 again, the Yankees were the only team in baseball whose games took at least 2 hours and 30 minutes. Everyone else averaged less time. This year, only Cincinnati and Detroit play games averaging less than 3 hours.

All of this has to change, or baseball is in danger of becoming as irrelevant as horse racing or boxing.

To his credit, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred understands there are problems. Heck, he can read a spreadsheet.

Pace of play is the low-hanging fruit, and Manfred has picked at it already. But to quantifiably improve the game, it must change in fundamental ways.

Power – at the plate and on the mound – has to be scaled back some. Maybe the ball needs to be deadened a bit, something baseball has done in the past. True power hitters will still launch balls into the night. Little guys might have to learn bat control again. Or maybe the mound needs to drop some more, another change that has a historical track record.

Shifts need to disappear so that hitters don’t feel they have to lift everything out of the park to avoid them. If that bothers your sensibilities, too bad. The NBA outlawed zones to keep the tempo of its game up, and brought them back in a limited sense when players adjusted. Why can’t baseball outlaw its own form of zone defense?

Such changes will cause a disruption in the game’s force, that’s for sure. They would demand different skill sets from the players. The smartest organizations would adjust quickly and stay on top. Others, especially those enduring “step-back” seasons, may see their hard work all be for naught.

Wouldn’t that just be the Mariners’ luck?

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