By Darius Thornton
There was a time when baseball was deeply synonymous with America. There was nothing, save for the colors of red, white and blue, more American than cracking open an ice-cold cola, eating a nice grilled hotdog and watching a baseball game. The MLB was the must-watch sports league, with people clambering to pile into ballparks or turning on the radio to hear the live play-by-play for their favorite team. Kids raced outside to play pick-up games amongst themselves, hoping to emulate their heroes in Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and others from the perpetual array of superstars the sport seemed to have had. The World Series was perhaps the greatest spectacle in American sports. Baseball quite simply was the American way of life personified. It’s safe to say those days are behind us. Society seems to be leaving baseball in the dust, leaving it as a dry, outdated husk that admittedly maintains a sizable, yet dwindling fanbase. How did we get here?
Let’s get one thing straight before we begin, baseball is far from dead, but it’s dying. According to sportsshow.net, baseball was the second most popular sport in America in 2019, behind only football. It’s clear that there is still an audience for it, I’m not disputing that. Though when you consider the great heights that it once held, there is a clear recent dropoff. The fact that football managed to overtake it in such little time is very eye-opening since forty or so years ago that was out of the question. Football has established itself as a central part of modern American culture. People aren’t lining up to file into ballparks anymore, they’re tailgating, waiting to get into NFL stadiums on Sundays. The feeling once associated with baseball has transferred to football. The Super Bowl is now the biggest sporting event in the country, while the World Series is now closer in ratings to something like the NBA. Baseball just isn’t an exciting game to watch. Now, playing it is a very different story. Nothing will ever compare to the joy of catching a flyball in the outfield or heckling a player at-bat by screaming “Hey Batter, Batter!” at the top of your lungs right before the kid sent one over the fence. Watching baseball on television is almost a soulless activity. It sometimes manages to feel like nothing is happening, even when something is. That leads to the first glaring issue with baseball: time
Football and basketball are far more dynamic and high-octane sports. In the NBA, the relatively short 24-second shot clock assures that teams have to at least try and do something. Quarters are also twelve minutes long, which help create a faster pace. Even the NFL plays fifteen-minute quarters and teams have to work with a play clock. Innings in baseball have no specified time, they’re when both teams get three outs, so an inning can be as long or short as it needs to be. Pitchers can also take as long as they want before they actually pitch, leading to some very dull moments. A pitch clock was implemented by the MLB ahead of the 2019 regular season, in spring training games, as a sort of trial run, but, so far, nothing has stuck. The average baseball game, college or professional, takes just over three hours. The average NFL game also takes three hours, while the average NBA game takes around two and a half hours. MLB games and NFL games are roughly the same length, so what? The difference is the speed of both sports. While football can feel somewhat slow, depending on the game, the play and game clocks help add the feeling of desperation, that the game is moving forward, that a team can only sit on the ball for so long. The disparity in the NBA is even greater, as it’s fast-paced, up and down nature gives viewers the impression that something is happening on every possession. The nature of the game makes so that points are scored a lot more frequently; in baseball, you don’t typically see guys cracking out homers every other pitch, such spectacle is reserved for the Home Run Derby. Game 3 of the 2018 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Rex took 18 innings and a whopping seven hours and twenty minutes for the Dodgers to defeat the Red Sox, 3-2. Yes, the teams only scored a combined five runs, in seven and a half hours. That’s not far from the length of a school day or a work shift. That is atrocious. The hard truth is, viewers are impatient nowadays. They want highlights; they want action and, while baseball does generate its fair share, they are rarely on the level of some other sports.
Think of it this way, when you see baseball highlights on Sportscenter or circulating online or wherever they are typically one of three things. A great pitch, an amazing catch in the outfield over a wall or something or some variant of a home run. They may excite you, but where is the variety? In football, there are big hits, long runs, one-handed catches, contested catches, a nice juke, a fun touchdown celebration, and countless other possibilities. Basketball can have long three-pointers, acrobatic dunks, crossovers, flashy passes, alley-oops, players catching fire, buzzer-beaters and more. Baseball just isn’t as exciting to watch for those who don’t already have a vested interest in it. Flash and excitement are what sells these days, and while baseball does have its moments, they are lacking compared to its competition. Why would your casual, average viewer watch a slower-paced, seemingly longer sport, when they could get more entertainment from basketball or football? Baseball needs to change with the times. While it has seen a few tweaks, its emphasis on tradition has kept it from changing too much from its original iteration. The NBA added an entire three-point line in 1979 to spice things up, and more recently a replay center in New Jersey to determine the ruling of some calls if refs can’t. The NFL has added additional replay regulations after the 2018-2019 season to reduce missed calls fans were complaining about. The MLB recently passed a rule that requires pitchers to face at least three batters before they are switched, to cut down on pitching changes in the middle of games. This is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to pick up the pace of the game.
Aside from time time, what’s another problem everyone can agree on: cheating. Baseball just so happens to be full of them. Of course, there is cheating in every sport to some degree, but baseball is a special case. For a long time, there has been speculation held, that a large number of players take performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS). Former pitcher, David Wells even went on the record as saying, “Twenty-five to forty percent of major leaguers are juiced.” Jose Canseco estimates more than 85 percent. There is no way to substantiate these claims, but that is absurd. Players like Barry Bonds have actually been kept out the Hall of Fame because of their widely believed steroid use. What is the point of getting into a sport when many of the players or even teams could be cheaters? Such is the case with the Houston Astros, whose players were caught stealing electronic pitching signs from other teams to gain an advantage. The MLB suspended their general manager and manager (the team would go on to fire them both) and fined their owner Jim Crane, who is a billionaire mind you, 5 five million dollars. A figurative slap on the wrist. How about we punish the players who actually did this? Well, there’s definitely an asterisk next to that title now. The MLB does not do enough to punish teams for cheating. Are the Astros the only team who does this? No. But they got caught, so they should serve as an example of what happens when you cheat. Perhaps they should also investigate these allegations of doping. With a league so heavily tainted by cheating, no wonder players are looking elsewhere for entertainment. Just issue random drug tests like the NBA does.
With all that said, baseball is clearly a relic of its time. A relic that still holds relevance and historical significance, but is no longer the glittering jewel it once was. It still has its place in American culture, but it is no longer the center of the American sports, and it will never be again, unless it changes with the times like its counterparts, or else it’ll be going, going, gone. It’s time to admit, America’s pastime is past its prime.