Speaking of our pasts, I was lured into a soft news piece on NewsRadio 88 late last week. A codger named Bill Kent was telling reporter Pete Haskell that when he was growing up as a fan of the New York Giants, Willie Mays was his hero and the Polo Grounds in Harlem is where he fell in love with him. Kent was thrilled that over the coming weekend, the 79-year-old "Say Hey Kid" would accompany rookie-of-the-year Buster Posey back to the site of the old ballpark, which is now PS 46, with the trophy that the San Francisco Giants received for winning the 2010 World Series.
"Isn't that a nice idea," I thought. The Giants were going out of their way to acknowledge the fans that they'd left behind when they followed the Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. Great PR.
I thought about my own father, Harry, who had lived out a boyhood fantasy when he became the beat writer covering the Giants for the New York Daily News in 1936. Surely, you remember the story where he traveled deep into the bayous of Louisiana to get the scoop on why one veteran was holding out? Or his exclusive interview with manager Bill Terry about the upcoming season? Before your time, you say? Oh. Mine, too, believe it or not.
Then there was my father-in-law, Bill Drohan, who grew up in the shadow of the ballpark and used to hang around in the clubhouse as a kid, making lifelong acquaintances. My wife has vivid memories of the night he brought home his "old buddy" Carl Hubbard to her Yonkers home in the wee hours of a weeknight morning. That's H-u-b-b-a-r-d; Hall of Fame pitcher? Doesn't ring a bell, huh?
Baseball has always been a sport rooted in the past. In fact, we have a very nice collection of old timers' cards that my father-in-law collected as a lad. But even as I was thinking about how nice it was that the Giants were acknowledging their heritage, I also was wondering about baseball's fading popularity with young people.
David Waldstein, who covered Saturday's event for the New York Times, writes that about 100 people who "refused to abandon a team that had once abandoned them" showed up at the event. (To be fair, he also reports that the Giants trophy later went on display at the New York Hilton and at a San Francisco-themed sports bar in the East Village, where younger fans stole glances and a snapshot.)
To be sure, I know a couple of young men my son's age (21), who play college ball and are as fanatical about the sport as my friends and I were, but it's no secret that pick-up games on sandlots happen about as often as kids shoot marbles. And the son of a business executive may get to a skybox a couple of times a year, but he's not hopping on the subway with his buddies and buying a general admission ticket with his Google AdSense earnings.
While mulling this dilemma, I happened across a YouTube video by a fan name Sully, who takes Major League Baseball to task for ignoring its young at great peril to its future. For example, he says, "How about a YouTube page? It's on the Internets [sic] .... It's kind of like radio except you can post pictures and communicate with each other."
Baseball's video presence is horrendous. I actually paid to watch a few games of the playoffs on the Web this year and found that I had to select my own camera angles, which led to a disjointed viewing experience of balls being hit to nowhere and out-of-sync images.
Sully goes on: "You can tell what advertisers think about baseball fans because all the ads on the MLB Network are either for Cialis or Flo-max." You get the picture. But Sully also has some ideas. A middle-aged Giants fan himself, he points out that the champeens happen to be a motley collection of colorful young players who are "relaxed," "cool," "quirky" "young" and "heavens forbid, fun." And also west of Pennsylvania, far removed from the overhyped Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. In fact, they're primed for promotion.
Take Tim Lincecum, who looks more like an X-gamer than a Cy Young winner. Or Matt Cain, who looks like the little kid on "King of the Hill." Or Brain Wilson, the pitcher who dies his beard and "might be crazier than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys." Then there's Barry Zito who plays guitar and does yoga, and Pablo Sandoval, with the best nickname since Sultan of Swat: The Kung Fu Panda.
In the end, I only listened to the last few innings of the last game of the World Series this year but I immediately picked up on how much fun this team had been, unbeknownst to me and, I bet, most casual fans (which nowadays includes most young people).
It turns out that maybe baseball has seen the light. Showtime, "the network that brought 'Dexter' and 'Californication' to television, is betting its viewers want to know more about Brian Wilson's beard, Aubrey Huff's thong and Tim Lincecum's parties," SF Gate reports.
Indeed, as sure as most games hyped as great pitching duels turn out to be slugfests, the success of this show will be in the execution. It's a nice start, but baseball really has to try harder to appeal to the people who will sustain it into the next century.