By Tim Dahlberg, of the Associated Press
That didn’t last long.
A day after basking in the glow of the most watched All-Star Home Run Derby in nearly a decade, reality intruded on baseball. Though fans still seems to dig the long ball, they don’t seem too keen about the game itself.
That’s a real problem for the sport, though it’s hard to blame fans for not tuning in for the All-Star Game. Those in Miami were so disinterested themselves that there were empty seats visible around the ballpark even as the game was tied 1-1 in the late innings.
Baseball should be thriving this season, coming off a historic World Series last year that captivated the country. Marquee teams like the Yankees and Dodgers are playing well and there’s an intriguing new crop of sluggers led by Home Run Derby star Aaron Judge that offer some appeal.
New ballparks are bringing in money with cushy $1,000 seats behind home plate. Television rights deals are still in a bubble, and owners have to be salivating over skyrocketing valuations that mean even a team like the Marlins can bring more than $1 billion on the open market.
Take a closer look, though, and there’s trouble ahead.
An All-Star Game that used to be must-see TV struggled again to draw eyeballs, even with no real competition from any other sports. The game drew half the audience of All-Star Games 20 years ago, and a quarter of the viewers from 20 years before that.
The reasons are varied, and not hard to find. Interleague play has taken the mystique off the All-Star Game, baseball doesn’t manufacture stars like other sports and the game itself is becoming one-dimensional with many of its subtleties fading away.
Mostly, though, it’s because baseball is simply too slow for today’s limited-attention viewers. They’re finding better things to do than watch endless pitching changes, long replay challenge delays and games that always seem to revolve around home runs or strikeouts.
Commissioner Rob Manfred admitted as much in a meeting with baseball writers before Tuesday’s game.
“There have been dramatic changes in the game, the way the game’s taught, the way the game is played at the big league level,” Manfred said. “There is a dramatically increased tolerance for strikeouts by offensive players. There’s much, much more emphasis on the home run as the principal offensive tool in the game. There’s a dramatic increase in the use of relief pitchers, even to the point of kind of a rotating bottom of the roster between Triple-A and who’s in the big leagues.”
What Manfred didn’t do was offer a plan to keep fans more involved. And that’s crucial at a time when nine-inning games are averaging 3 hours, 5 minutes, up a whopping 9 minutes from just two years ago.
Contrast that with the NBA, which moved yesterday to speed up its own games. Concerned that the last few minutes of games were choppy, the owners eliminated two late timeouts to make the flow go more smoothly.
It’s not all Manfred’s fault, when the knee-jerk reaction from the players’ union is to fight any change proposed by owners. Players grudgingly gave a small concession in allowing intentional walks with no pitches this season but have resisted most proposals to speed up the game.
But if the NBA can eliminate some timeouts, there’s no reason baseball – which long ago quit worrying about saving traditions – can’t move more quickly to make the game more watchable, especially among the attention-challenged younger generations that aren’t embracing it.
“Other sports have been more aggressive about managing what’s going on on the field in terms of what their game looks like than we have been, and I’m certainly open to the idea that we should take a more aggressive posture,” Manfred said.
That likely means pitch clocks next season, something that can be implemented unilaterally after giving the union a season’s notice. But there should also be limits on pitching changes, visits to the mound and replay challenges that seem to take forever.
While they’re at it, a strike should be where it was originally intended to be – between the knees and the letters.
None of that is going to make baseball the dominant game in the land once more. That ship has sailed, with football and even basketball surpassing the nation’s former pastime.
But it’s a start, and it might be enough to entice a few more people to give the game a chance.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press.