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Baseball needs a jolt — and soon

Columnist Bruce Penton talks about changes needed in baseball to keep fans' attention
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Baseball — the national pastime. Emphasis on the ‘past’? Say it ain’t so.

It’s been a foregone conclusion for the past couple of decades that pro football has zoomed past baseball as the favourite sport of North Americans, but lately, baseball is really taking it in the teeth in the court of public opinion.

Games are lasting far too long for today’s fan, who lives for immediacy and fast-paced action. Pitching change after pitching change, often after the guy on the mound has faced only one hitter. “A one-batter specialist,” he’s called. Too many strikeouts, as pitchers are becoming dominant and batters are more interested in — or forced to — swinging for the fences because defensive shifts have become the norm in major league parks. It’s all about “launch angle.” Tony Gwynn and Ted Williams wouldn’t approve. Pete Rose would bet it’s bad for the game.

An online report from the CBC’s the Buzzer said it best: “Baseball is now an extreme power game where hitters swing (and miss) from the heels against an endless string of flame-throwing relievers. When they make contact, the ball often lands in the teeth of a defensive shift. The pitching changes are endless. The ball is in play less than ever. Entertainment alternatives are everywhere. Sure, the cash is still rolling in. But you can't just count on fans sticking with baseball forever.”

Forbes Magazine reports Major League Baseball attendance dropped below 70 million in 2018 for the first time in 15 years. If that’s not enough to make Commissioner Rob Manfred and his owner bosses stand up and pay attention, what will? Money talks, of course. Perhaps when gate, TV and merchandise revenues start to dip, the powers-that-be will take some significant steps to create more action during a nine-inning game.

Broadcaster Bob Costas, whose first sporting love is baseball, said in a recent New Yorker interview that “baseball’s supposed to have a pleasing, leisurely pace. It’s not supposed to have a lethargic pace, and that’s what Manfred and company and the Players Association, if they’re enlightened about it, have to grapple with.”

Preventing scoring is becoming the way to win in all sports. Defence wins in the NFL. Coaches in the NHL use neutral-zone traps to stifle an opponent’s offensive efforts. In baseball, overpowering pitching and defensive shifts are taking over. Boring is winning out. Fans are zoning out.

Big changes are needed, or what used to be the national pastime will become more like naptime.

  • Janice Hough of “Lebron James went to Lakers in part to jump-start his career in Hollywood. Well, looks like this year he'll be free to work on movies starting in April.”
  • Colin Jost of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update: “Bryce Harper has signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Finally, answering the question, ‘How much would someone have to pay you to live in Philadelphia?’”
  • Headline at “Report: Man agrees to live in Philadelphia for $330 million.”
  • Patti Dawn Swansson in the River City Renegade, on Jays’ prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: “Apparently there’s 250 pounds of him, and 200 of it must be in the butt and thighs. His backside is wider than a hay wagon.”
  • Norman Chad of the Washington Post, who evidently is not a fan of The Athletic: “Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt ran out of toothpaste this morning, so he borrowed a Crest tube from his son. This was first reported by @TheAthletic.”
  • Chad again, on champion bowler Jason Belmonte, who bowls using two hands: “It’s as revolutionary as if Picasso painted with the brush between his teeth.”
  • Brad Rock of the Deseret News: “Patriots owner Robert Kraft pleaded not guilty to charges of soliciting a prostitute. But he did plead guilty to wearing a coloured shirt with a white collar 30 years after they went out of style.”
  • RJ Currie of “Eight Portland Trailblazers got stuck in an elevator during a recent road trip to Boston. During the 30 minutes they were trapped, they still outscored the Celtics.”
  • Currie again: “At last count, an Indiana man estimates he has watched 26,261 layers of paint dry on his Guinness World Record giant painted baseball. ‘We know how you feel,’ said Knicks fans.”
  • A groaner from the punny Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times: ”Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young drew his second technical foul of the game — and an automatic ejection — because he stared down the Bulls’ Kris Dunn. With apologies to Led Zeppelin, he was buying a stare-way to heavin’.”
  • How bad is the world, asks Dwight Perry? “Crime’s so bad,” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy told the Gridiron Club dinner audience in D.C., “we had a Super Bowl stolen from us.” Added comedian Argus Hamilton: “It’s so bad in Venezuela, if you throw a dog a bone he has to signal for a fair catch.”

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