I’m a baseball fan. Several myths have developed about baseball that need to be challenged. Baseball announcers and sports media personalities in general tend be bandwagon hoppers. One guy says that the average age of a baseball fan is somewhere in the fifties (pick a number, it changes), and that becomes a Greek chorus. A recent poll asked people what sports they were fans of. The NFL led with 60%, then MLB with 47%, then college football, ice skating, and the NBA. So baseball is still a very popular sport. What is true is that the average age of a person who watches a baseball game on TV is in the mid fifties. You can tell that by the Viagra commercials. I’m an old retired guy. I potter around in the garden or run errands most mornings, and then watch baseball in the afternoons and evenings. There are about 20 games per week on my TV, and maybe I watch 10 of them. A kid in school with tons of homework or a young professional with a full time job, a wife, and young kids, might be able to watch a game or two per week. Yet we are each one fan. I’m not ten fans. All you have to do is watch the camera pan the stands at an MLB game or a spring training game. There are a lot of kids there, even babies and toddlers. Half the stadium would have to be occupied by people well into their eighties to average out in the mid fifties. Another point often made is that baseball fans, presumably we are still talking about TV watchers, are skewing older. When I was a kid there was one game per week on TV, often watch by the whole family back when most people had Saturdays off. The number of games has increased steadily over the years. So the same logic applies to that as well. I think the number of games has probably reached its max at about twenty. So the skewing older should level off.
Another myth is that fewer blacks are playing in the majors. There are far and away more black players in the majors than there ever have been, just most of them are Hispanic, which isn’t a race last time I checked. And yes I know many Latinos are not black. It is the participation of African Americans that has declined dramatically, and that is a real shame, but it is not a race thing per se, but rather the result of socioeconomic factors and the difficulties of evaluating and predicting talent development. It will not be solved by allowing home plate shimmy dances or any number of crazy ideas to make the game more attractive to young African Americans. However they could speed things up some by conducting the play review process on site with an official in the booth. That official should start reviewing any close play immediately and not wait for a challenge. If there is no challenge, he/she doesn’t interfere. If challenged, she/he is already half way there. Another idea is reduce the number of relief pitcher changes by making a rule that if a pitcher is changed in the middle of an inning after facing only one batter, then that pitcher is ineligible for the next game. The manager could still do it but not without penalty, and I doubt he would do it three or four times in a game. It would be an added element of strategy.
Predicting whether a kid fresh out of high school will be a star in the majors is a total crap shoot, more than any other major sport. There are big fat guys and five foot two guys that are stars in the majors, guys drafted way down there who are in The Hall of Fame, and many a can’t miss guy who missed badly. There is rarely a sure thing player at the age of eighteen. Also potential injury is a larger concern in baseball than other sports. A kid right out of high school might take four or five years to reach the majors, if they reach it at all. Those are all non-remunerative injury risk years that the NFL and the NBA don’t encounter. I believe the NBA does have a development program for younger guys, but we are still talking a year or two with a far greater degree of certainty. So it is hard for kids just out of high school to demand huge signing bonuses from major league teams. That organic uncertainty makes baseball a less attractive choice for top young athletes who are now specializing in one sport at a younger and younger age. Frankly there is no solution for this problem that I can see. It is just the nature of things. For the Latino players from the Caribbean, Mexico, and the northern rim of South America, baseball and in some countries soccer hold the only tickets out of poverty.
Because of the uncertainty factor in signing young kids, as well as great improvements in the quality of college baseball, increasingly the majors are signing players out of college. They are more mature with their talent further developed, and they are playing against high level completion in college these days. Baseball in the better conferences has been compared to double-A minor league baseball. It is at the college level that the majors could make an impact. Back in the sixties when I went to college, baseball was a sleepy side sport with rudimentary facilities. It was viewed as a summer sport which didn’t really fit the college agenda. Since then it has grown by leaps and bounds to become a big time college sport, but one still hampered by its small time past. The average college football team has 114 players and is allotted 85 full time scholarships. The average baseball team has 34 players and is allotted a maximum of 11.7 scholarships. Percentage wise quite a difference. As a result full time scholarships in college baseball are rare. Scholarships are divided up into halves, thirds, and even smaller proportions. It is not uncommon for the best player on a team to be a two-sport athlete with a scholarship in the other sport. It is easy to see why a great athlete pressured in junior high or even earlier to pick a sport to concentrate on might give baseball a pass. A half scholarship to Vanderbilt doesn’t do a poor kid any good. The initiatives undertaken by MLB to increase participation by inner city youth are commendable, but absent a solution to the scholarship problem, they will have limited impact.
Historically the majors have enjoyed a maximum participation rate among African Americans somewhere in the 15-18% range. Currently it stands at around 7.5%. Baseball will probably never again be the most popular sport among African Americans, but I have an idea that I think over time would restore that rate to historic levels. Baseball should negotiate a match grant program with the NCAA that would work as follows. Get the NCAA to increase its baseball scholarships to 13.7 per division one school. That works out to four additional half scholarships, which is the most common form for college baseball. Those four half scholarships would be match granted by the majors so as to provide full scholarships that would be limited to incoming freshmen and continuing as they matriculate. There are 240 division one baseball teams. The scholarships would be staggered in, one a year for each team over the first four years. After that you would just keep filling slots as they become available. Staggering would guarantee that each year there would be a pool of full scholarships available. The schools would administer the program. I estimate the cost at $5,000,000 – $6,000,000 the first year, increasing by the same amount each of the next three years until reaching a fully vetted total of $20,000,000 – $24,000,000 per annum, which is not peanuts but certainly doable by major league baseball, around $800,000 per team per year. The scholarships should have a need based qualification, not race based. Nevertheless, the certainty of 240 full scholarships available every year over time would attract the participation of some top young African American athletes and their parents. Baseball does have some career advantages that should appeal to a growing African American middle class, such as less serious injury risk than football, and the contracts are guaranteed. Also longevity is a positive factor. You can collect big money into your late thirties and even early forties in baseball. I’m convinced that this or a similar program would make a difference over time in African American participation and interest in baseball. It would certainly be excellent PR, well worth the investment.