It’s spring training time again in Arizona and Florida. Sports fans hear that and release a collective boo. But despite all the problems facing baseball, it is still without question the No. 2 sport in America.
Yes, my favorite baseball team will continue to suck. But with Alan Trammell at the helm, my boys probably won’t lose 100 games again this year.
Yes, the big-spending Yankees and their 326 top-notch starting pitchers are going to make noise in the postseason again.
Yes, 99 percent of big-league players are overpaid. Example: Jose Lima made almost $6 million dollars in 2002 despite the fact that his bloated 7.77 ERA made him a part-time starter for the hapless Detroit Tigers.
Yes, many of best ballplayers in the world are jacked up on a variety of performance enhancing substances, endangering their lives and reproductive organs in the process.
But guess what? Nobody in America really cares.
Oh, they say they care. It seems like every man, woman and child with vocal cords will complain about baseball, and those without the ability to speak will use computers to air their misgivings about the sport.
They say the games take too long. They say it’s boring. And while the whole of this nation may despise the fact that Jim Thome scratches himself 15 times between each pitch, that doesn’t change the fact that America loves baseball.
According to a nation-wide poll of 40,000 sports fans conducted by ESPN, a whopping 78 percent say they follow professional baseball. Although that number is considerably below the 89 percent earned by the NFL, it is well ahead of the NBA (64) and NHL (44).
The world of motor sports continues to use smoke and mirrors to convince people that have teeth and don’t live in West Virginia of its legitimacy. But the reality is that just 19 percent of sports fans follow NASCAR at all. That is less than figure skating.
The NHL and NASCAR have a higher percentage of avid fans, but don’t let a few people that make a ton of noise and spent a ton of money confuse you. A lot more Americans care about baseball.
While most fans won’t admit it, it is not so much the superstars of baseball or the actual games themselves that draws us to the ballpark. It is the intangible factors that make it our national pastime.
Those same intangibles are responsible for the record-setting attendance in minor league baseball last season (more then 38 million tickets sold), as well as the huge television ratings success stories of the College World Series and the Little League World Series on ESPN.
Baseball is a game that anyone can play. Sammy Sosa’s family would never have had enough money to let him take up hockey, and David Eckstein won a World Series in Anaheim despite a 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame that would never have a chance at the NBA.
Baseball is a game that has real history. For more than a hundred years our country has embraced the sport that the movie Field of Dreams called “a game of fathers and sons.” Baseball is one of a very few things in American culture that can unite multiple generations. When I called my great-grandmother, who lived to be more than 100 years old, we would often speak about her beloved Chicago Cubs. I’ll never forget when she told me that they paid too much money for Sammy Sosa. Those are experiences that the other sports just can’t touch.
Baseball is a game that is woven into the very fabric of American culture. Other once great sports, like boxing, have faded into what Mike Tyson calls “Bolivian.” But baseball maintains its tremendous influence. Just look at the baseball phrases we use every day in our casual conversations. One employee may land a “home run” job, but another person looking for the same opportunity appears to have “struck out.” That is, until something else comes “straight out of left field.”
Next time you think that baseball fans are a dying breed among America’s youth; just try to imagine a world without “second base.”
Steve Jackson can be reached at email@example.com