The Future of Baseball
“Understand this: The minor-league players, the player you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or high-A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as 10-year or 15-year veteran players. They have as much opportunity to influence the growth of our game as those individuals who played for a long time because those individuals go back into their communities and teach the game, work in academies, are JUCO coaches, college coaches, scouts, coaches in pro baseball.
“They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it. So we felt it was really, really important not to release one minor-league player during this time, a time we needed to stand behind them.”
I would say that at least once a day for the last few days, I’ve gone back and read that quote — I love it so much. It’s a reminder of something about baseball that I think a lot about, a question that was getting lost even before we found ourselves in a pandemic, the Great Depression and 1968 all at once, something that recent days have highlighted in a whole new way.
Who is looking out for baseball?
I mean the game. Who is looking out for the game? Who is looking out for this sport that has been leaking popularity for many years now, this game that ranks fourth in popularity among young people, this game that no longer has the national presence it once did, this game that is aging before our very eyes.
Let’s talk for a moment about where the game is — or was before the pandemic. More than half of the people who watch baseball games on television are 55 and over. The average age of the baseball fan, according to Sports Business Journal, is 57 — so much older than the NFL (50), NHL (49), NBA (42) and, particularly, MLS (40).
Here’s a sobering fact: The average age of today’s baseball fan is roughly the average age of horse racing fans in 2006. Let that sink in. Think of what has happened to horse racing since 2006 (well, for one thing, the average age rose seven years). It ain’t coming back.
To be transparent, baseball fans have been older than the fans of other major sports for many years now. It is, by its very nature, a sport that relies on nostalgia and history rather than violence and blurring action. But the age-gap has reached a whole new level. Only 9 percent of all Americans listed baseball as their favorite sport in the latest Gallup poll, the lowest percentage in Gallup history.
And that number would have been much lower except for the 15% of people 55 and older who still love baseball most.
Among people 54 and younger — baseball at 7% ranked way behind football (35%), basketball (12%) AND soccer (11%).
Then there’s this: Think about how few African American faces you see in baseball now. On Wednesday, MLB released a statement about how the game has zero tolerance for racism. The statement itself seemed like a lot of words to say very little, but more to the point: Where are the black stars in the game? If you are young and African American, how do you see yourself in this game?
There are zero African-American GMs in baseball. There are two African-American managers — one of them, Dusty Baker, hired only to put out the flames after the Houston Astros cheating explosion. And African American stars?
Well, there’s Mookie Betts, a superstar who got traded during the offseason. George Springer is wonderful. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are great but have been hampered by injuries for a couple of years now. Marcus Semien was fantastic in 2019 and is mostly unknown. David Price won a Cy Young and is still an effective pitcher. Andrew McCutchen has been a star and a credit to the game for years but he’s so vividly on the downhill. Lorenzo Cain has never gotten the credit he deserves. Same with Michael Brantley. Josh Bell smashed 37 homers last year. Tim Anderson showed some star potential in 2019. Byron Buxton is so fun when healthy, which is rare.
How many of them would you call big stars?
Now, depending on your age, think of the players who defined baseball for you.
I was 11 years old in 1978. That year Jim Rice and Dave Parker won the league MVP awards. And the list of black stars behind them is seemingly endless and spread out in every single baseball town — Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Amos Otis, Vida Blue, Willie Randolph, Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, J.R. Richard, Andre Thornton, Bill Madlock, Gary Maddox, George Foster, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Bibby, Ken Singleton, Don Baylor, Willie Stargell, Dusty Baker, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Eddie Murray, Dock Ellis, Hal McRae, Frank White, Ron LeFlore, Lou Whitaker, Al Oliver, Mickey Rivers so many more.
Mike Schur, who is a bit younger than me, goes off the top of his head and points to his childhood of Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Willie Wilson, Kirby Puckett, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Dwight Gooden, Tony Gwynn, Albert Belle, Lee Smith, Barry Larkin, Mo Vaughan, Reggie Sanders, Kevin Mitchell, Ron Gant, Kenny Lofton and Tim Raines, literally just off the top of his head, typing in a flurry of memory. He didn’t even get to Hall of Famers Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas or the guy who is probably the best player of the last 50 years, Barry Bonds.
He didn’t even mention the most famous baseball player of the 1980s, perhaps, Bo Jackson.
Remember when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders and Michael Jordan, the greatest athletes of the day, ALL wanted to play baseball.
We are so far away from all that now. There are many reasons for the dearth of African Americans in baseball and, yes, there are people dedicated to turning back the tide. But the point here is that so many people don’t see themselves in this game now. The game’s range narrows.
And who is out there looking to expand that range again?
This, I should say, is NOT one of those “Baseball is dead” essays that people have been writing since, no kidding, the 1890s. Major League Baseball, in many ways, has been doing better than ever because it’s still a force in local markets. Attendance has been going down, yes (it’s essentially flat for the last 22 years) but baseball is the most popular summer show on television in any number of cities.
And franchises have skyrocketed in value. Twenty or so years ago, the Kansas City Royals couldn’t find a local buyer willing to put up $100 million. Last year, they sold to local businessman John Sherman for about a billion dollars.*
*It is so unnatural for us to understand numbers as high as a million and a billion, so here’s a little primer. Let’s say you get a job paying $50,000 a year. If you work at that job for 20 years, you will have earned $1 million. How long would it take you make a billion?
Answer: 20,000 years.
No, this is not about MLB dying. This is about baseball itself. The game. Who looks after it? Who promotes baseball? Who proselytizes baseball? Who spends all their creativity and energy and focus on making baseball a better, more interesting, more inclusive, more exciting game for fans — not today’s fans but those in five years, ten years, 20 years?
There are, unquestionably, some people trying. But we don’t see them much. What we see are teams and managers, without hesitation, sacrificing parts of the game that might be interesting or daring in the interest of efficiency.
What you see is a rise in ticket prices and how that has priced out families and so many children who otherwise might fall in love with the game.
What you see, I believe, is a shortsightedness, a submission to the moment, a perpetual fight over the game’s riches. This last part, in particular, has played out over the last few weeks while a global pandemic rages on, and do you think most people care if it’s the owners or the players who are at fault? No. Most people just see that people can’t come together, even now, for this game that they’re all supposed to love.
So who can blame someone for asking: If that’s how they treat this game, why in the hell should I care?
Dayton Moore is a friend of mine. We don’t see eye to eye on everything, to say the least, but we’re good enough friends that we have had numerous arguments about our disagreements, have poked lots of fun at each other about our individual feelings, and we never think less of each other over it.
The reason, at least on my side, is this: I admire Dayton Moore. I believe I know where his heart is — especially when it comes to baseball.
Dayton Moore loves baseball. He loves the game with a depth that, I think, goes beyond the ordinary. He loves every single part of the game. We’ve had long discussions about how much he loves grounds crews. We’ve had long conversations about how much he loves scouts. We’ve had long conversations about my mother in law, Judy, who lives in a small Kansas town and every night watches and roots for the Royals with everything she’s got, no matter how far out of first place they might be.
Dayton and I almost never have a conversation — even short ones — where he doesn’t ask me about Judy.
He loves high school baseball, college baseball, minor-league baseball. He loves baseball played by kids in Latin American countries. He loves baseball played in Japan and Korea. He was at the heart of building a youth baseball academy in Kansas City. He wants to takes baseball everywhere, to every boy and girl in this country, because he believes baseball is the best game, the game that teaches the best lessons, the game that equalizes the playing field, the game that allows you to thrive even if you aren’t the tallest or the fastest or the strongest.
He is the truest of baseball believers. I love that about him.
Stunningly, I don’t think that sort of love is all that common in the game. And it should be.
What’s so wonderful about the quote above is that, frankly, I’ve never heard anyone else say it. And it’s so true, so obvious once you think clearly. What Dayton Moore is saying is that every minor leaguer no matter how high they get in the game is a hero to someone. High school baseball fields are named for them. Little League teams are coached by them. Junior college and college players learn from them. Raw talents are spotted by them.
There are highway signs with their names on them throughout America.
Baseball might treat them shabbily or take them for granted but they are Johnny Appleseeds for this game. They are a critical part of the game’s purpose … and the game’s future.
THIS is how baseball should be thinking about everything, not just now but always: How can we celebrate baseball? How can we reach new audiences? How can we bring live, exciting baseball to more communities (and for less money)? How can we show young people how much fun the game is to play and watch and follow? How can we get into communities? How can we make a difference? How can we draw more young people?
There aren’t easy answers. But there are no answers if you don’t take the time to ask the questions. If I was commissioner, I would put Dayton Moore in charge of the game’s future.