Baseball’s new pitch

Opening day of the Major League Baseball season used to be a big deal.

Quick: When does the season start? What teams are playing? Where’s the game, and what time is first pitch?

Slow down before you grill the hot dogs, crack open a beer and sit down to watch. The first two games of the season took place last week. Did you miss that? Well, you have a good excuse — they were played In Tokyo. 

The Seattle Mariners swept the Oakland A’s in the Tokyo Dome on March 20-21, as sell-out crowds cheered the last two big-league games of Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki. First pitch for both contests was shortly after 4:30 a.m. Central time. I know because I watched both games, although I doubt many people joined me.

Baseball has done this before. It plays a couple early games in Japan, where baseball is immensely popular. But it drains the pageantry and excitement of Opening day for most American fans, other than a few fanatics — the term where the word “fan” was derived.

Most teams begin play on Thursday, March 28. The Twins have a new manager and a young roster, but they should be exciting and might sneak into playoff contention. Everyone is hopeful on Opening day.

When baseball was America’s dominant sport, the first games of the season were cause for national celebration. Parades were held, schools dismissed early and presidents and mayors took to mounds to toss out a first pitch, often poorly as fans hooted and booed. Baseball is a game based on tradition and storytelling, where diamond legends’ feats and stats are revered for decades.

But Opening day has been cheapened. Much the same has happened to the World Series, once truly a national event. Now it’s ignored by many Americans, and since games are played deep into the night, few young fans enjoy the Fall Classic. The World Series was once played in daylight, but by the 1970s, some games were held after dark, which boosted TV ratings.

It’s been more than three decades since a World Series game started in the daytime. The Minnesota Twins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 11-5 on Saturday, Oct. 24, in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series. The first pitch was thrown shortly after 3 p.m.

Since then, it’s all night games. While baseball claims it schedules night games to increase TV ratings and to avoid going head-to-head with football, the fact is, World Series’ ratings have plummeted in recent years. The five lowest-rated World Series of all time were played between 2010-18.

Baseball has become a regional game, not a national passion. Core groups of fans cheer on the local nine (or 10, if it’s an American League team with a DH) and attendance is still strong. MLB reports 69,625,244 fans went through turnstiles in 2019, an impressive average of 28,830 fans. But the total was the first time since 2003 that combined attendance dropped below 70 million.

Young people, who claim baseball is too slow and not compelling, are turning away. Older fans are dying off. The avalanche of games on TV has drained the special nature of nationally televised games.

So it’s no wonder baseball holds games in Japan and has played in Mexico before. This year, the defending world champion Boston Red Sox will play their archrivals, the New York Yankees, in London on June 29-30.

Baseball is seeing to expand its market. It already is increasingly diverse, with one-third of its players Hispanic, Asian or black. The number of black players has declined from the 1960s and ‘70s, when such stars as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and others dominated the game, but now many of the greatest players are Hispanic, such as infielder Manny Machado, who signed a $200 million deal with the San Diego Padres this winter, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who may be the greatest 3B ever, veteran Angels slugger Albert Pujols and Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, a small but mighty star.

Ichiro retired after the games in Tokyo, but other Japanese and Asian players have followed his path to big league stardom. More are sure to suit up in the big leagues as well.

These players have brought new style to the grand old game, and also have drawn new fans. They will create new traditions, new ways to follow baseball. Maybe some English fans will add to that stew, especially if a British baseball star emerges.

While old cranks — an old term for baseball nuts like me — might grumble about the changes we are witnessing, baseball may be reborn and become even stronger with a global following. Maybe someday, the World Series will be exactly that.

Play ball!

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