Our National Game?

by Mike P. Hamilton | 7/25/01 5:00am

The task at hand, the thing that keeps popping into my head, is the state of baseball today. This should be a summer for the baseball fan to revel in.

We have Barry Bonds on pace to obliterate Mark McGwire's single-season homerun record. Seattle sensation Ichiro Suzuki is tearing up the league, playing with an electrifying flavor not seen in years. The Cubbies are in first place two weeks after the All Star break, and the Red Sox are within striking distance of the Yankees despite injuries to four of their best players. All this is big news, which should hold the interest of sports fans.

Yet, what has been the first thing on the minds of baseball aficionados over the last week or so? It has been the debate over how umpires should call games.

The controversial memo to umpires by MLB Executive Vice President Sandy Alderson that allegedly set an ideal pitch count for a nine inning game and pressured umps to call more strikes has set of a flurry of debate around baseball. The sports pages of newspapers across the nation and the airwaves of sports talk radio are all alive with debate over the directive.

How umpires call a game is an important factor, but the amount of time spent on the latest issue is overkill. More importantly, the furor over this issue is indicative of the wrong focus by members of the media.

The drive to create controversy and sell papers has eclipsed actually covering the game. There have been several instances in recent memory where this has happened. While things like firing a bunch of umpires or instituting a new policy on headhunting have some bearing on the game, they sometimes are given more attention than warranted.

This factor is one of the reasons baseball keeps slipping in popularity. The product Major League Baseball has to sell is not a perfect one. The truth is there are many hindrances to baseball's popularity with the American public.

In a society with a very short attention span, it is difficult to hold someone's attention every night for nearly seven months. Football, on the other hand, only requires a few hours, once per week, for five months. No wonder the ratings for the National Football League are so much better.

Baseball is also a very nuanced game, which does not lend itself to today's viewing public. If you don't believe this, try explaining the infield fly rule to the average Joe. Compared to the other major sports, baseball can be difficult to explain and follow.

The myriad rules and strategy of baseball can take years to learn. Also, there is the action factor. Fans expecting excitement every minute of the game will be let down. Then again, a suicide squeeze executed to perfection -- or a complete game shutout -- can be a thing of beauty.

In short, baseball is a radio game that has trouble fitting in a TV world. The era in which baseball dominated the sporting scene has long since passed.

Baseball is not an anachronism, but the way in which it is treated by the media and the League must be changed. The newest effort to speed up games is a fine example of this. I'd like games to be under three hours just as much as the next guy, but rather than concentrating on the defects of baseball, why not point to all that we as baseball fans have to be grateful for.

As usual, there are many great stories this baseball season. It's just the wrong ones that are taking up the headlines.