Baseball fans will cringe at most of this article, but it’s a bitter pill that needs to be digested and understood. Numerous articles lament the fall of baseball’s popularity, and some consult “brain trusts” made of former baseball greats. Columnists conclude that the sport is too slow, which it is. But, Football rules the sports landscape, and it has six seconds of action for every minute and a half of nonsense (if you take into account halftime). Some say that the “old fogies” that run baseball are too stuffy. But, basketball players have to wear suits to games if they aren’t playing and NFL celebration/ uniform regulations are draconian.
Baseball’s real problem hurts too much for fans to admit. It has turned into a country-club sport. People watch what they played, and baseball is simply inaccessible for most Americans to play beyond the age of 8. Sure, there are Dominican and Cuban players, but increased participation in Cuba doesn’t increase American participation or viewership.
Baseball weeds-out kids early on. By age 8, “All-Star” and “Select” teams are chosen for grooming. Most other kids see the writing on the wall and fall out. Unlike Football and Basketball, there are rarely junior-high baseball teams to let late-bloomers develop. Highschool football teams take on 3-6 times as many kids as a baseball team can.
All of this means that a child who hasn’t shown “excellence” by age 8-9, likely won’t go on to play baseball. Early excellence has nothing to do with athletic abilities or potential. It is a combination of proper coaching for mechanics, repetition, and equipment. Affluent parents have found they can buy these with private coaching and select team involvement.
Like golf, mechanics are far more determinative of early success in baseball than athletic ability. Most coaches or parents don’t know enough about mechanics to recognize a kid who “isn’t hitting hands first,” a critical flaw. Contrary to the movies, there are rarely “naturals.” Private coaches can make or break a kid with a critical flaw, and just about every kid has one at some point.
Even if a kid is taught proper mechanics, he needs reps to ingrain it into muscle memory. A normal parent-lead practice affords a kid about 8 swings and 6 ground balls per two-hour practice. A private coach or an experienced select team coach can multiply the reps by 4-5 fold.
A discussion of mechanics and reps assumes the kid has managed to overcome the biggest hurdle to baseball participation. Football can be played on any grass field and basketball on any concrete surface with a hoop. Pitching can’t be honed without a mound. Fielding and throwing are hard to learn without dirt paths and properly spaced bases. Unlike football pads, renting fields aren’t a one-time purchase.
The coup de grace comes with equipment. A game of baseball require catcher’s gear, gloves, and bats that can cost a parent’s monthly salary. Bryce Harper gained notoriety by hitting a 500 foot home run when he was 17, with a $500 bat called the Demarini Voodoo Overlord. Most kids fight a war of muskets v. machine guns.
The effects are hard to miss. Just try reading Bryce Harper’s bio and looking at his perfectly coiffed hair without imagining a sport populated by the douchebag in every Adam Sandler movie, or the Duke Lacrosse team throwing $1 bills at a stripper. It’s hard for a sport like that to be “cool,” because nobody wants to cheer for only the privileged. Re-read the article above and you notice that the “baseball brain-trust” is made of kids that either had money, or access to great coaching as a kid.
There is a way to save baseball. It doesn’t have to be a country-club sport, but MLB has to take a bigger role. It needs to put out training videos for everyday parents, that are geared to kids from different age groups (4,5,6, etc.). It needs to help parents identify common critical flaws and how to fix them. It can supply little leagues with cheap aids like the swingrail, that can accomplish as much in 15 minutes of practice as 40 hours of coaching, and can be shared amongst every team in an entire league. Most importantly, it has to support the building of parks and the dissemination of equipment. Kids outgrow bats, shoes, pants and gloves. Leagues should be encouraged to collect these at the ends of seasons and offer them for free or at a discount in conjunction with marketing the following year’s membership to underprivileged areas.
Football’s head injury issues will wear at it. Kids will need a sport to play, and communities will need something to bring families together. It can be baseball, it should be baseball, but only if it stops being a country club sport.