Here’s how old I am: I can remember when I used to know the name of the commissioner of baseball. It was around the last time that I could name the heavyweight boxing champion or the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”
Back then, some of us thought the commissioner worked for the fans. The commissioner was in charge of making sure that the game was fair and that the owners and the players didn’t get too greedy and ruin it.
It was his job to call off labor strikes, cancel terrible trades and punish evildoers, whether they played on teams or owned them.
Commissioners like Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent behaved like judges who made decisions for the good of the game.
But over the last 22 years the commissioner has been Bud Selig, the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and there was never any question who he worked for. His job was to make sure the other owners got their way, sometimes at the expense of the players and always at the expense of the fans.
Selig enabled a strike late in the 1994 season, canceling the World Series for the first time. When performance-enhancing drugs made a mockery of the sport’s most important records, Selig handed out trophies.
The commissioner stopped worrying about the integrity of the game and focused on keeping the money flowing. As a result, the person who held the job has mattered less every year.
And, to be honest, baseball has mattered less, too. The sport may take in more money than ever, but it has gotten less interesting to people who are not hard-core fans. A World Series game draws about as many television viewers as a regular-season football game.
According to an article in Businessweek, the new commissioner of baseball (Ron Manfred, I looked it up) has been charged with managing his sport’s decline.
The biggest problem he will face will be familiar to anyone who lives in Maine: Baseball is headed into a demographic winter.
The average fan watching on TV is 54 years old, the oldest of the four major sports. That’s why all the ads are for prescription drugs, especially ones for prostate health.
The average National Basketball Association TV viewer is under 40.
Attempts to make baseball more interesting to young people have not succeeded.
Even as the Little League World Series has become internationally televised, Little League participation is down. Young people would rather watch the nonstop action of an NBA game than settle down for three hours of baseball that could stretch into four or five hours if the conditions are right.
Baseball owners are going to want to try to bring back the days when every boy had an oiled mitt under his mattress and a stack of Topps baseball cards in his pocket, but that’s not going to happen.
Like many other institutions that used to dominate the culture (including, I’m sorry to say, newspapers), baseball is becoming a niche product. There are so many more ways for people to spend their time, one sport is never going to grab everyone’s attention the way baseball once did when people had fewer choices.
If I were baseball’s commissioner, I would focus on taking care of the fans I’ve got, and forget about taking over the world. These would be my first moves:
• Bring back Pete Rose. The all-time hits leader was banned for life in 1989 for gambling on baseball. That crime seems almost quaint and wholesome compared to the big stars who have since altered their bodies with hormones so they could perform inhuman feats of strength. Fear of gambling hearkens back to a simpler time, when baseball really mattered. Bring back the Aqua Velva man.
• Shorten the season: Baseball is a game for lazy summer afternoons. I don’t want to watch it in November.
Cut the regular season back to 154 games and throw in some weekend double-headers so the World Series can wrap up around Columbus Day.
• More day games: Not for the reason that is usually cited – so more children can watch – but for the aging fan.
I remember when my idea of a perfect summer evening was dozing off, listening to a West Coast game on the radio. Now I fall asleep during the 7 o’clock starts.
Those would be easy fixes. I have other ideas (a third league consisting of only the Yankees and the Red Sox; bringing back stadium organists; letting fans vote on their smartphones when it’s time to change pitchers), but those three seem enough for now.
Baseball doesn’t have to matter to everyone to survive. It just needs to keep on mattering to the ones who still care.