Baseball players are still big. It’s just baseball that got small

Three All-Stars. Can you name them? (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Baseball’s All-Star game once marked a peak in the summer sports calendar. This All-Star game finished second in the overnight Nielsens to “America’s Got Talent.” Its 6.5 rating was a tick above from last year’s all-time low of 6.4. This after a highly hyped Home Run Derby won by Aaron Judge, a fresh face who plays in New York. This after a World Series won by the forever futile Cubs, the final game of which drew the biggest baseball audience since Braves-Twins in 1991.

I watched a bit of Tuesday’s game, but only a bit. (Maybe you’ve heard, but baseball takes a while.) My first look came during the bottom of the third through the middle of the fourth. Here’s what I saw: Strikeout, walk, walk, ground out, strikeout, strikeout, walk, strikeout. Fifteen minutes passed with more wild pitches (two) than balls in play (one).

The point today isn’t to rip baseball or the All-Star game for what they are and aren’t. It’s not that previous All-Star games never featured a strikeout. (Google “Carl Hubbell, 1934.”) It’s not that home runs were never important. (Remember when Pete Rose lusted to be “the first $100,000 singles hitter”?) Still, it’s matter of statistical fact that the sport keeps skewing toward what the sabermetric set calls the Three True Outcomes – strikeouts, walks and homers.

Sure enough, two of Tuesday’s three runs came via the circuit clout, as it once was known. The game included 17 hits against 23 K’s. That can happen when good hitters never see the same pitcher – and every pitcher is of All-Star caliber – even a second time. That’s also how you get an inning like the top of the fourth, when Bryce Harper conducted a live interview from his position in left field without having to move to react to a single batted ball.

In the course of that discussion, Harper referred to Judge, who per the latest narrative is The New Face of The Sport, and said, “There are 20 faces of the sport.” This got me thinking. If baseball’s 20 best players in baseball walked through Lenox Square in civilian gear, would you recognize any except Freddie Freeman? (Maybe Kershaw by the beard.) And would Our Freddie be spotted if he ambled through the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.?

This isn’t to say that contemporary baseball players aren’t worth knowing. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are, achievement-wise, comparable to Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax. When the latter two were in their heyday, they weren’t just baseball players. They were two of the 10 most famous people in these United States. They were bigger stars than football’s Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, bigger than basketball’s Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The word “iconic” has become diluted by willful overuse, but Mays and Koufax were just that – icons.

On May 30, after Trout was lost to a thumb injury, the baseball writer Joe Sheehan offered in his newsletter: “Trout’s busted thumb resonates beyond the L.A. basin to baseball fans all around the world.” Sheehan’s phrasing struck a jarring note. That same afternoon, ESPN had released its World Fame list, a rundown of the 100 most renowned athletes. Trout wasn’t on it. Kershaw wasn’t on it. No baseball player was on it.

LeBron was. Brady was. Heck, Dwight Howard was, at No. 65. Three of the top six – Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar – were soccer players. But from the sport that brazenly deems its championship round the World Series, there was nobody.

That’s not, I submit, Trout’s fault or Kershaw’s fault. They’ve become the best player and pitcher of their era. They’re comparable to the best player/pitcher of any era. And it’s not as if they toil in some flyover state. One works next door to Hollywood, the other across the street from Disneyland. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”: Baseball players are still big; it’s just baseball that got small.

Again, the intent isn’t to go into all the reasons why. (Usual suspects: Pace of play, lousy marketing, PEDs, late start times for playoff games, the ever-changing nature of entertainment consumption.) If we go by TV ratings, we see that baseball still does OK in local markets; it’s just that, barring a once-in-a-century occurrence, we don’t much care who’s in the World Series. We follow our baseball team, which isn’t quite the same as following baseball.

The most ardent fans of baseball writ large seem to be those who grew up listening to games on transistor radios or those who track the statistical side. I count myself among both sets, but I concede that I’m a little weird. And I’m old enough to have known baseball when it truly was our national pastime, which make its shrinkage in our consciousness doubly jarring. Sometimes I feel as if I need to explain why Mike Trout is such a big deal. Nobody ever had to explain Willie Mays. He was an article of faith.

We know “KD” by his initials. We know Aaron Rodgers as Mr. Discount Double Check. They’re among the best half-dozen players in their sports. So is Paul Goldschmidt, but I’m guessing a few of you might stumble to identify his team. (Hint: It’s coming to SunTrust Park this weekend.)

Heaven help me, but there are days when I’m clicking around on the internet and I really wonder if the most famous contemporary baseball player isn’t Tim Tebow. And I fear for our world and all who inhabit it.

Further reading: Inciarte as an All-Star shows the Braves know what they’re doing.

Further still: The Braves at the break — better than expected, with the best yet to come.

Still further: Which Braves are apt to be traded by the deadline? Glad you asked.

Reader Comments 0

20 comments
Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

Pace of Play the new buzzword in the sports media regarding baseball. Games last too long ,too much down time between each play, too many walks ,too many strikeouts, just too much of everything. What are the solutions, I have heard about many :Automated strike zone eliminate the arbitrary ball and strike zones of each umpire. Shorten the season to 108 games , play teams in your division 12 times and teams in other divisions 6 times , no interleague games. Start season in May and end it in before Labor Day. More extremes to shorten games if that is the real issue, change to 3 Ball 2 strike system, lower the mound to 6 inches, enforce the batter staying in the batter's box between pitches , have real penalties, a called strike for instance, and the same for pitchers who take forever between pitches a ball is called if the pitcher does not deliver a pitch within 15 seconds of receiving the ball back from the catcher. 

Not advocating any of this, the automated strike zone may be cool, but with all the clatter in the media , and the influence they have , it may lead to drastic changes to what used to be the American Pastime, a true term , Baseball's time as America's sport may have already passed.

ChessMaster
ChessMaster

The fact that the athletes are different has also impacted baseball. Players are stronger and faster but the playing field is the same. 90 foot base paths and the mound at 60.5 ft. Every pitcher seems to pitch in the 90's with more going over 100 MPH, but they are throwing the same distances. This leads to more strikeouts and homers, fewer exciting base running situations, as the game changed to focusing on those two outcomes.


Pitchers are no longer looking at a batting order four or more times in a game. Why would I expose my starting pitcher more than three times when I have eight guys in the pen who can through as fast as Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan? 


I grew up loving baseball and Davey Lopes was my idol.  He was a little guy (5'7") who could play defense and steal a base. He would strike out about 50 times a year. He used to drive pitchers crazy when he took his lead, and made the game exciting. He wouldn't make the field in today's game.

Soybean Bob
Soybean Bob

Let's face it...for the most part it takes brains to like baseball... the other sports, not so much... most all of the NBA stars go by their first names... that speaks for itself... game pace really isn't the issue - take soccer, for the most part it is incredibly boring, but for whatever reason, people are liking it more and more... so baseball's problem is not pace, but rather the populace at large don't understand nuance... baseball is filled with nuance - every single pitch is a "play", they all affect the outcome, drip by drip... football is filled with thuds which are much easier for the casual viewer to "consume" as we say today...


i look forward to friday when I can "consume" some more baseball... spare me the annual vocabulary revisions, soon we'll all be speaking like Janet Yellen... which is basically like charlie brown's schoolteacher

SoulofSuw
SoulofSuw

@Soybean Bob it really doesn't take 'brains' to like baseball. A familiarity with the sport helps but even then what you truly need is patience.


The pace of play that they speak of is the amount of dead time in the sport. A typical three hour baseball game only has roughly 12 minutes worth of actual action. Most of the time it's players scratching themselves or walking aimlessly back and forth around the mound or batter's box.


Soccer has an incredible pace of play because there's actual action occurring virtually the entire game. Is there much scoring? No. But go to an Atlanta United game and tell me you're not engaged the entire time. Why? Because there's constant action on the field as opposed to baseball.


A soccer game is two hours filled with nothing but action and suspense while, as you stated, baseball essentially is 3 hrs plus of 'dripping' dialogue. I've taken four different friends to their first ever soccer game this yr and they all said it is far more entertaining than going to a baseball game. The irony is they all grew up watching baseball.


All sports have their lil nuances and such, that's not a trait exclusive to baseball.

ChessMaster
ChessMaster

@Soybean Bob I used to love the strategy in baseball but between the designated hitter (in half the games), and the waiting for a home run, the game has become boring and dragged out. What is intellectual in watching a person take a three foot lead off first while they wait for the next guy to hit it over the fence?


Some times pitching duels are interesting but they are easier to watch on TV as sitting in a stadium, its hard from most angles to know if a pitch is a ball or a strike.


And BTW, I watch other sports and they all have strategy. Soccer has people in motion (even during the commercial breaks) as they try to get a better position. Volleyball, football, gymnastics, I enjoy them all. I just won't continue to spend the money I used to on MLB. Heck, I prefer single A.

Smilesga
Smilesga

My husband and I planned to watch the game, but Fox had more emphasis on during-inning interviews than on the game itself. We finally decided it wasn't worth watching. One of our favorite memories was taking both of our fathers to the All Star game held in AFCS many years ago. That was a special night indeed.

Terpskin
Terpskin

@Smilesga Glad to read someone remembers the All-Star game from 1972.  I was an usher in the upper deck!  Sold out!  Aaron homered off Gaylord Perry!

NL won the game!  Great night!

creative
creative

Alright, Mr. Bradley, I'm ready for my close up.....

MaybeMaybeNot
MaybeMaybeNot

If Jose Altuve walked in to a Walmart in Atlanta in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops........

patriotdog
patriotdog

If pace of play were the problem in this fireworks, loud music, X-Box era, no one would watch golf.

It's cyclical. It'll come back.

And kill interleague play immediately, please !

SoulofSuw
SoulofSuw

@patriotdog no one, below the age of 60, does watch golf. Golf is suffering the same problem as baseball.


If you don't believe me check out the Market Watch article detailing the youngest & oldest sports audiences for 16 different American sports leagues.

mgunter
mgunter

Baseball is still a great game but just like football and basketball the talent level is diluted by expansion. So many Major League Baseball players should be in AAA or AA .

SoulofSuw
SoulofSuw

@mgunter if, like football and basketball, talent has become diluted then why has the popularity in those sports risen while baseball's has dropped?


If they, theoretically, have the same problem then they would suffer the same fate.

Andechser
Andechser

To blithely ignore the fact that the NBA has been resurgent since the 80s phenomenon of Magic-Bird and those fantastic Boston-L.A. duels, leading into the Jordan era and beyond -- and that the NFL has at the same time become a worldwide marketing behemoth 2nd only to real "football" is, in a word, ridiculous.

Perhaps think about giving a little credit, at least, to those other sports for their ascent in the popular culture instead of laying complete blame at the feet of baseball.

Yes, it surely has problems. Game length and pace of play are primary among them. But it also had, effectively, a 70-year head start over the modern incarnations of those other leagues. They have caught up, and then some.

SoulofSuw
SoulofSuw

@Andechser very true statement but baseball is more concerned with the amount of market share they are losing with the younger generation.


Yes baseball has taken a back seat to more sports market competition but eventually that will cause them to take a hit in their bottom line if they're not already.


That's why this is a big deal to them.

ACE30144
ACE30144

So, what's your point, other than to wax nostalgic?  You like baseball.  I do too.   Let's leave it at that.

CTATTER
CTATTER

Too many Latin and Asian players who need interpreters and are getting tons of American money in MLB now.  What diehard American fan can identify with them.

Linda59
Linda59

Finally the truth, baseball has lost its local appeal to America, when it decided to go international. Now they are bringing in Latin announcers with heavy accents. There was a time when every team had at least one American star(black or white) now I see Latin players batting 200, starting on teams.....WHY.....I never hear of a baseball camp being run by a Major Leaguer in Atlanta anymore

SoulofSuw
SoulofSuw

@CTATTER wow this may be the most plainly ignorant comment I've read on this message board thus far.


If foreign players were the issue then why is soccer's popularity (which is composed primarily of foreign players) seeing a surge in America?


As this article noted, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar are 3 of the top 6 most popular sports figures in the World. And they're many bars in Atlanta where I could go to and strike up a conversation about anyone of these players and I could also talk World Cup action or EPL (English Premier League) action.


Josef Martinez (Venezuelan) and Miguel Almiron (Paraguayan) are by far the two most popular players on Atlanta United (the team that the city has hastily taken a liking to and ranked only behind the Chicago Cubs in online merchandise sales earlier this year).


The problem isn't with international players/faces, it is generational. Younger people are far more willing to tolerate international flavor/diversity while less willing to tolerate slow, drawn out pace of play with a substantial amount of dead time.

jlrhoya
jlrhoya

Blame it on Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, etc. that so many fans (especially the youngsters then) were admiring and buying their jerseys, gloves, etc.  These guys turned out to be cheats and destroyed baseball for at least a generation.  The only thing that will save it is a new crop of youth playing baseball (instead of soccer) and looking for new heros.