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Baseball's Critics Hit the Wrong Targets : Analysis: The only thing wrong with the game is an aging fan base.


Nationally, the old Brooklyn Dodgers were one of the most popular teams of all time.

Throughout the country in those days, the Dodgers were uniquely symbolic of both hope and hope lost.

In big games, they were usually the underdog. They were usually outscored. And they never quit trying.

Today, though, no baseball club could play that role in America's psyche--not that there aren't plenty of candidates. The difference is that baseball isn't as relevant as it was in the 1950s and earlier, when basketball and pro football were like minor league.

Distinctly major league today, the NFL and NBA have baseball in a vise, and, every spring and every fall, they squeeze hard.

Baseball's many critics, when examining the game's troubles, seldom take that into account.

Instead, unfairly or ignorantly, they attack baseball itself.

Here are some of their notions and some comments on their misperceptions:

" They say that greedy players, always seeking more money, have turned off baseball fans. "

The truth is that baseball players are in the same greed boat with NFL and NBA players, and with rock stars, too, not to mention rappers and others who obviously all make more than any entertainer is worth. It is both erroneous and unjust to come down on baseball players only.

Moreover, the reason a .237-hitting second baseman can ask for, and get, $2 million is that on a continent with a population exceeding 300 million, there aren't 30 good second basemen who can hit .237.

" They say the games are too long. "

Any reporter who spends an afternoon or evening talking with the spectators in baseball or football crowds will discover that long games are low on their hate list.

The push for shorter games comes from radio and TV people, who don't want to miss the start of the next scheduled program, and newspaper people, who have deadlines.

" They say that player strikes and threats of more strikes have turned off baseball's fans. "

Attendance always rises not long after a baseball strike. After an NFL strike, too.

" Critics name Jose Canseco, among others, and say that a reason for baseball's fall in popularity is that modern ballplayers are contemptuous of sports fans. "

In the 1930s and '40s, Ted Williams, a .400 hitter who refused to tip his cap after home runs, fought a running battle with press and public. Sports fans and journalists have always been dissed by athletic malcontents.

" Noting the absence of Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio and other old superstars, they say that baseball doesn't have many heroes anymore. "

Some answers:

* The past is often telescoped in the mind of an old critic. At any one time, baseball has seldom had more than a few superstars. DiMaggio never saw Ruth or Cobb.

* In the national publicity race today, there is more competition from other sports than there was 50 years ago. If Cal Ripken Jr. had played in DiMaggio's time, when pro football and basketball seemed immaterial to many Americans, he would be a famous man today. A famous old man, to be sure.

* Night games and better pitching have in recent years combined to rob some good batters of the hits that could have made them .370 or even .400 hitters.

* At any given time, baseball will always have fewer superstars than, say, basketball because of the nature of the two sports. It's simply a lot easier to star in basketball.

When a game has to be won in the final seconds, a great basketball player can often do it himself.

When a baseball game has to be won at the end, a great hitter is always constrained by the realities of his sport. During a ninth-inning rally, he might never come to bat, and even if he does, as talented as he is, he can count on making out seven times out of 10.

Think of it this way: In his long basketball career, Michael Jordan was never intentionally walked.

" They say, vociferously, that baseball is an afternoon sport and that nothing but the greed of the owners prompts them to play so many night games. "

In a workingman's country, there are more fans for a night attraction than a matinee. How can anyone be seriously faulted for making his or her product available to the largest possible numbers?

Like any capitalistic organization, baseball is driven by the profit motive, but its starting-time decisions, at least, are consistent with the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.

" They say that World Series night games are costing baseball what could be its next generation of fans -- today's kids and teens. "

In a country with four time zones, there's no way to make a ballgame available to all adults and kids everywhere. Baseball would lose some adults if it played World Series baseball in children's hours--just as the NFL loses Eastern adults and kids, too, as well as national rating points, by starting its Monday games at 9 p.m. ET.

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