My daughter sent me this week a poem called “The Catch”, by Simon Armitage, the UK Poet Laureate. I haven’t studied poetry in years, so there might be some deeper meaning or symbolism here. But it seemed appropriate enough for opening day:
afternoon. He is
when the ball flies
off the edge
of the bat; to the top,
yet he reaches
and pick it up
of its loop
of a branch,
the first of the season.
This Major League Baseball season, too, was seemingly beyond us. For 99 dark days, club owners and players bickered and threatened to kidnap him. Yet here it is, back, our annual symbol of growth and renewal and the promise of warm days ahead. To quote another Englishman, Sir Paul McCartney: It’s coming, like a flower.
Baseball has flaws. It always has been and always will be. These days it’s often about extremes: lots of strikeouts, home runs and pitching changes. All of these aspects of the game, on their own, can be appetizing. At best, however, a baseball game is a more balanced meal.
Alarmists concluded that this lack of action doomed the poor old game. But if you study the history of baseball, you’ll find that people always cite reasons to criticize the sport. Each generation considers itself faster than the last, so baseball, which keeps you waiting for the action, is an easy target.
“For a game supposed to characterize America and the American spirit, baseball is quite slow,” wrote Damon Runyon in 1922. “It is certainly one of the slowest sports. A real game is quite fast. The preliminaries leading to this game are dragging on. It takes an average of two hours to play a baseball game.
A century later, it takes just over three hours. In any case, Runyon was not in such a hurry that he avoided the sport: he covered it with such distinction that he was among the first writers to be honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
People just like to complain about baseball. It’s a hobby in itself, and I understand. I wish players would steal more bases. I want teams to develop launchers to work deep into games. I wish baseball cards were cheaper and World Series games started earlier and advertising patches were never allowed on uniforms. (They’re coming next season.)
The 2022 MLB season begins
Baseball is back after a labor dispute delayed the start of the season.
But baseball is booming. In 1975, when Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on “The Baseball Boom,” more than half of major league teams (14 of 24) averaged fewer than 14,500 fans per game. In 2019, the last season with full-capacity crowds allowed throughout, only one of 30 teams, the Miami Marlins, failed to cross that threshold.
Attendance has declined steadily over the past few seasons; by 2019, it had shrunk by around 2,000 fans per game compared to the previous five seasons. Yet baseball still drew more than 68.5 million fans in 2019, eclipsing the combined totals of the NBA in the 2018-19 season (about 22 million) and the NFL, at full capacity, in 2021 (more of 18 million).
Baseball has a lot more dates to sell, sure, but that’s the point. No matter what spoilsports say, the league is popular enough to host an average crowd of over 28,000 (as of 2019) across 81 regular-season home games for each franchise. Millions enjoy the daily companionship that only baseball provides.
“I think for people in the clubhouse and for people who love the game — who follow it daily — baseball is with you every day,” Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said this spring. “And that’s not just part of what you do, it’s really who you are, in some ways. I love showing up at the ballpark every day, and I think people love turning on the TV and having a baseball game to enjoy every day.
Baldelli spoke at the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., where the minor league clubhouse has a giant image of Kirby Puckett scaling the wall for a catch in the World Series. In 1989, the Twins made Puckett the first major league player with an annual salary of $3 million. Now their new shortstop, Carlos Correa, makes $35.1 million a year, a record for an infielder.
Correa has an opt-out in his three-year, $105.3 million contract, so he could leave after this season. But the fact that he got his deal with the small-market Twins says a lot about the health of the industry. The Twins struggled last season and spent money to improve. Other teams that had lost records in 2021 – the Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers – also signed nine-figure contracts with free agents: Kris Bryant for Colorado, Javier Báez for Detroit , Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for Texas.
The Mariners, eager to break a 21-year playoff drought, lured 2021 American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray to Seattle for five years and $115 million. Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Pittsburgh have signed franchise contracts with local players: the Rays with Wander Franco, the Guardians with José Ramírez, the Pirates with Ke’Bryan Hayes. Even the Miami Marlins signed World Series Most Valuable Player Jorge Soler away from division rivals Atlanta.
This is how the market should work. Some teams, like the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics, have made several cost-cutting transactions. The Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t done much to improve on their 110-game losing streaks. But almost every team can reasonably expect to fight – right now.
There’s almost always a compelling reason to watch: a top prospect making his debut, a veteran returning to where it all began, an ace returning from injury – and that was right at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, featuring Bobby Witt Jr. (Kansas’ rookie infielder City), Zack Greinke (former royal back in blue) and Shane Bieber (2020 Cy Young Award winner for Cleveland).
There are changes this season: the designated hitter in all games; Lists of 28 players until May 1; in-game announcements of replay reviews by referees; a third wild-card playoff team in each league; and the introduction of PitchCom – a portable communication device that allows catchers to send encrypted signs to pitcher and defenders.
Some innovations, like bigger bases, a travel ban, and the automated ball-striking system (let’s just say robot umpires, for fun) aren’t here yet. Some have been dropped, such as seven-inning games in doubles, and some persist, such as the auto-runner at second base to start extra innings.
TV viewing is also changing, as baseball climbs on streaming platforms. Two games each Friday will be available only on Apple TV+ (starting with the Mets game against the Nationals and the Astros game against the Angels this Friday). Another weekly game, starting May 8, will air exclusively on Peacock, the NBC streaming service, on Sunday mornings, sometimes as early as 11:30 a.m. EST.
TBS will air a game every Tuesday night, ESPN every Sunday night. Fox will air its usual buffet, including regular season TV shows, the All-Star Game, the Field of Dreams Game and the World Series.
These networks are not stupid. They are attracted to baseball because people still care. Baseball is easy to love, if you let it — as easy as catching an apple off a branch at the start of a new season.