Years ago, when I was working for a municipality in Connecticut, the Mayor of the community was constantly complaining about the part-time Janitor, or Maintenance Specialist or whatever he would be called today. His biggest complaint about the man, who was older, semi-retired, and a part time worker, was that he could never keep the floors in the old Town Hall clean.
One day, when I was in the Town Hall, the Mayor called me in to his office and took me down the hall to the Janitor’s Closet. He opened the door and pulled out what looked like a Space Age mop, with all kinds of attachments and gadgets. He held it up proudly and said, “Even he should be able to keep the floors clean with that elaborate mop”. I said, “I hate to tell you Mister Mayor, but I think you are working on the wrong end of the mop.”
Baseball’s infamous Pace of the Game Committee has been working from the premise that the game is too slow and lacks action in making recommendations for change. Like the Mayor above, baseball is working on the wrong end of the mop.
Baseball has been applying band aid after band aid to what they perceive as the problem, in the form of things like a pitch clock, reducing the visits coaches and other players can make to the mound, eliminating the need to throw four pitches to intentionally walk a batter, and the latest, to take effect next year, requiring relief pitchers to pitch to three batters before they can be removed. All these changes and others have the potential to reduce the length of games a mere few minutes. Like the Mayor with the mop, in order to resolve this problem, baseball must first identify the problem.
I have expressed my concern with the changes that have been tested and/or implemented in an attempt to stop the attendance losses in this column before. The problem with baseball is not the length of games, it is the lack of excitement in the game as played today.
The Gods of Baseball all but eliminated the exciting and entertaining on field arguments between players and umpires with their instant replay and propose to further reduce the possibility of disagreements by installing a robot umpire to call balls and strikes.
They eliminated collisions at second base and home plate with their insane rules preventing runners from trying to score or break up double plays. They can do all they want to shorten the game by gentrifying it and that will not resolve the problem of diminishing attendance.
They have added Wild Card teams to the Playoff system, reasoning that the increased numbers of Playoff spots will keep more teams eligible for the Playoffs longer in the season. They reason that the additional teams contending for the Playoffs will stimulate interest in the lesser teams’ fan bases and thus help attendance.
I have talked in this spot, in the past about other ways to address this problem. For example, eliminating the extreme defensive shifts, which have focused attention on the long ball as the way to beat the shift and increased home runs and strikeouts to hitherto unimagined levels, would go a long way toward making the game more exciting. Who would not agree that scoring a run with three base hits was more exciting than three strikeouts and a home run?
Over the years since 1994, when the Major leagues adopted a three Division format for the first time, the difference between the haves and have nots in baseball has steadily increased.
In 1994, the last place teams in the American League’s three Divisions, ended the season an average of 18 games behind the first-place team. In the National League, the difference between the first place and last place team was also 18 games.
Last year, the last place teams in the American League trailed the Division winners by an average of 43 games and the average deficit of the last place teams in the National League was 30 games.
How much interest can the lower teams generate even when competing against the leaders? Worse than that, how much excitement, which translates to attendance, can a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers generate in the last month of this season.
The O’s, as of Wednesday of this week, had lost 98 games and won just 46 and trailed the first place Yankees by 48 games. The Tigers had already lost 100 while winning just 43 and trailed the Twins by 45½ games.
In the National League, imagine the lack of excitement generated by a game between the Colorado Rockies, in last place in the West, 32 ½ games out, and the Miami Marlins, trailing by 38 games in the East.
This is just one of many problems at the root of baseball’s diminishing attendance, but it is one that needs to be addressed. It has been caused by many factors, not the least of which is the huge salaries that haves are able to pay Free Agents, the abuse and inept use of revenue sharing funds by the smaller market teams and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that has, year by year, eroded baseball’s ability to control its own game.
There is no magic bullet for solving the problem of diminishing attendance, but one thing is clear and becomes clearer with every misguided attempt to resolve it, baseball is working on the wrong end of the mop.