Commentary

Baseball, You're Killing Me

It wasn’t really that long ago that the World Series was one of the most-watched television events of the year.  As recently as 1986, the deciding game seven was watched by 50 million people.

No so today.  A World Series game will still generally win the night but not overwhelm the week.  And this year was no different, with lackluster ratings despite games featuring the Red Sox and Dodgers, two of the sport’s most popular teams.

The fact that I even began this piece with a discussion of ratings shows how badly we’ve all become afflicted with behind-the-scenes-ism.  In a world where the average movie-goer scans the weekend box office results on Monday and then opines on what kind of movies the studios should green-light in the future, it’s not surprising that sports radio hosts and fans want to weigh in on what match-up Major League Baseball “really” wants for the World Series.

It is widely understood that MLB not-so-secretly prays for a showdown between two big market teams with national followings and compelling storylines. At the beginning of October, sports Twitter knowingly predicted how bad it would be if the Milwaukee Brewers ended up playing the Oakland As.   And the conventional wisdom was probably correct, if even Dodgers/Red Sox can’t draw a crowd.

The emphasis on World Series ratings seems a little misplaced, however, because baseball’s real cultural impact is at the local — not national — level.  For half a year, as spring morphs into summer and summer into fall, nightly baseball is the soundtrack for day-to-day life.  This results in high local ratings, which, because they are fragmented across 30 markets, receive little national attention.

Regrettably, in the 21st century, baseball is increasingly unsuited for national prime-time programming.  Most devastatingly, baseball skews toward those unwanted older viewers.  Almost as bad, baseball has failed to create national stars on par with NFL quarterbacks and NBA power forwards.  Indeed, the New York Times recently published a whole piece outlining how no one from baseball has been among the best-known sports celebrities since the retirement of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.

And then there’s the length of those games.  Baseball, you are killing me!  I watched a nine-inning playoff game two weeks ago that didn’t end until 1:22 a.m. ET.   Then on Friday night I watched almost all of an 18-inning game that lasted until 3:30 in the morning! When you’re consistently keeping your most loyal fans up this late, you are driving them into an early grave.  

Play-off baseball is like regular baseball on steroids: virtually every pitch is a life-or-death event.  This results in pitchers staring at the catcher for half a minute before finally throwing the damn ball.  For their part, the batters are now taught to foul off as many pitches as possible to wear down the starters.  All this prolongs the game and increases the viewing anxiety.

Those fatigued starters are on a short rope anyway, thanks to a strategy known as “bullpenning.”  That’s the game-lengthening practice of taking out starters early and calling in multiple relief pitchers from the bullpen.

Yet even with these shortcomings, baseball is arguably the most compelling and anxiety-producing post-season sport.  TheRinger.com had an interesting essay arguing that although play-off baseball amplifies what’s most annoying about the sport, it still delivers thrilling games.  When you have a strong rooting interest in the outcome, there is no sport that delivers such sustained high-pressure suspense.  

At some point during a post-season game, each pitch becomes a walking heart attack.  With a man or two on base, and the pitcher tossing over to first, and the batter fouling off good pitches, the stress rises because you know that the very next pitch could be the one that transforms the game for good or ill.  

For the past three years, as soon as the World Series is over, I’ve been posting the same message on Facebook: “Baseball is the greatest game.”  I am always surprised that regardless of the late hour and ultimate winner, there can be a dozen or more “likes” and comments on these posts.  The ratings might not show it, but social media amplifies that people are still passionate about baseball.

But yes, baseball is killing us. It leaves us sleep-deprived and stressed-out after a roller coaster of emotions. We are “depressed” when our teams lose or suffering from “withdrawal” when a successful season ends.  Even the end of the season feels like death, with nothing but colder and darker days to look forward to until the spring.

And yet, when your team does win it all, you don’t really care that the experience has taken years off your life.  It’s well worth it.  I already can’t wait for the 2019 season.

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