And Another Thing

JG columnist Ben Smith talks about the return of TinCaps baseball after the long winter

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Ben Smith

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Baseball healthy now, but what about future?

– Summer arrived in the wee hours of the morning a week ago today, which is probably why you missed it. Who gets up at 4 a.m. to watch a man throw a baseball at another man in the first official game of the season, even if you’re a confirmed seamhead?

Opening Day has always been the unofficial gateway to 80 degrees, sunshine and the sleepy drone of lawn mowers doing their work. But it’s hard to envision all that when Major League Baseball decides Opening Day will happen on the Moons of Meepzorp in the middle of the first weekend of March Madness.

And so, scheduling fail, as Clayton Kershaw flummoxed the Arizona Diamondbacks on five hits 7,500 miles away in Australia, while America was transfixed by Omigod Mercer Beat Duke and How ’Bout Those Dayton Flyers. Lousy timing, lousier idea – even if MLB’s goal of expanding baseball’s brand to new markets was a noble one.

But now the game comes back to home ground for actual Opening Days, starting Sunday with the Dodgers at San Diego and continuing Monday, and what kind of shape is it in, the weird Aussie coda notwithstanding?

The temptation is to say it’s in good but not great shape, and there’s plenty to justify that. Baseball is still wrestling with the PED thing, an ongoing battle that is ongoing pretty much everywhere but seems to stick to baseball more visibly than any other sport. And some teams are still spending high dollars and, to a greater or lesser degree, being rewarded for it.

Not that the smaller markets haven’t made a dent. The Reds, the Pirates, the Rays, they all made the playoffs last year, and the Athletics won the AL West. Even the Royals, who didn’t make the playoffs, won 86 games.

We still wound up with the Red Sox, whose payroll was the fourth highest in baseball last year, winning the World Series for the third time in a decade. So the rich got richer again.

Know what all of that didn’t do for baseball, though?

It didn’t keep a whole lot of people away from the ballparks.

Overall attendance was the sixth highest of all time in 2013, with 15 of the 28 major-league clubs drawing north of 2.5 million, and eight drawing 3 million-plus. Even Tampa Bay, traditionally the worst-drawing team in the majors, averaged 18,000 fans.

So, yes, people will still come, Ray. And they’ll still watch the Fall Classic, no matter how routinely it gets buried by even ordinary NFL games, and how diligently MLB has worked to push away viewers.

No doubt it had much to do with the Series coming down to the Red Sox and Cardinals – two of the most passionate fan bases in the game – but the TV numbers were up across the board for the 2013 Series, in most demographics anywhere from 13 percent to 18 percent. This despite the fact the suits running the game continue to insist on instant gratification over long-term gain by scheduling the Series for the middle of the night.

Sure, the prime-time dollars are huge, but when you have Series games that don’t end until long after midnight on the East Coast, you’re losing the next generation of baseball fans. A kid who grows up missing the last five innings of World Series games is a kid who grows up with posters of LeBron and Peyton Manning on his bedroom wall, not posters of Clayton Kershaw.

Yes, the numbers are healthy and seductive now. But what about two decades from now?

When does summer arrive then? And how much more quietly?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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