In an insightful WSJ piece last week, writer Brian Costa took to Newburgh, New York to parse the declining interest in youth baseball. A youth league there that had 206 players as recently as 2009 could only scare up 74 this spring.
But I wouldn’t have had to travel to the banks of the Hudson River to grasp the falloff of interest in baseball among young American boys. I live mere blocks from the playground baseball field that my father first took me to and hit the ball to me in the late 1940s. Through my pre-teen years this ball-yard was the nerve center of the fecund blue-collar neighborhood I grew up in. As long as there was light, boys played baseball there. Year-round. Usually on pick-up teams and with no adult supervision. Now as I drive by the old yard there are no ball-players. The City of Tampa still mows the field. But aside from a few adult softball games at night in the spring, no one plays on it anymore. The same is true of baseball fields across the city.
This melancholy flight away from the Grand Old Game by the young is not restricted to Newburgh and Tampa. If the numbers accumulated by the National Sporting Goods Association are to be believed (they may not be exact — but they certainly capture the trend), the number of boys engaged in youth baseball has dropped from 8.8 million in 2000 to 5.3 million in 2013 (the last year of available data). It’s enough to make a lifelong baseball aficionado want to jump off the Tappen Zee Bridge.
The survey shows that participation in youth football, basketball, soccer, and softball have also fallen off. But baseball has, please excuse the expression, taken the biggest hit. What these youngsters are doing while not playing ball I shudder to think. There are so many more choices of things to do now than in those simple Eisenhower days. Sports have clearly lost participants to computer games, and activities requiring various gadgets beginning with a lower case i, about which activities I know nothing and care even less. In 1955 the options of shooting down space invaders with your thumbs or hanging out at the mall were not open to me or my mates for two very good reasons: (1) no computers, and (2) no malls.
At the other end of the baseball continuum, the Major Leagues are thriving. Attendance is at all-time highs. People wearing Major League gear are everywhere. But how long will this prosperity continue in the absence of interest in the game on the part of young people? MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that a poll of fans conducted by MLB concluded that participation in the sport as a youngster was the number one determinant of whether the grown-up would remain a fan. Seventy percent of the men polled told MLB that playing baseball as a youngster was what led to and sustained their interest in the game. Will MLB ticket sales drop off as the youth player pipeline dries up?
MLB has engaged in various efforts to increase interest in youth baseball, but the current numbers of young players would indicate that these efforts have not been very effective. And other things MLB does seem to work against youth interest, like starting showcase play-off and World Series games in October at an hour that is almost bedtime for adults, to say nothing of youngsters. In tennis you would call this an unforced error.
It’s probably a good time to explore another important reason why interest in youth baseball, and in other youth sports, has fallen off, perhaps the most important reason. Parents. That’s right, parents. We’re now deep into the helicopter generation, where parents feel obligated to hover continually over their kids. Parents must whenever possible, it is now believed with almost religious intensity, attend all of their children’s athletic efforts. As a result of this badly misguided notion, parents are everywhere at youth athletic events, yelling encouragement, and often less than encouraging things, at their athlete offspring, at coaches, at umpires, and at other parents. Do not be misled. This is not a good thing.
My pals and I at Hyde Park Playground in Tampa would have been appalled if our parents had showed up for our games. What are they doing here? Has “The Sid Caesar Show” been canceled? Good grief, I felt under enough pressure trying to deliver for my teammates without having to worry about my parents seeing me take a third strike, or allowing a routine grounder to go through the wickets.
Another thing that has driven some young players out of the game is the emphasis grown-up coaches, often parents, place on acquiring skills over having fun. Baseball is a difficult game to play well. Its skills give themselves up only slowly. Too many youth league coaches, who themselves would have preferred to have been professional ball players rather than the accountants or insurance adjustors they turned out to be, push their young charges too hard to acquire skills and perform well. So the practices and games are a grind rather than a joy. These guys should work out their fantasies elsewhere.
The City of Tampa supplied my playground with a college student “coach” a couple of days a week, and there were some organized games against other playgrounds. But this guy didn’t teach us much. He mostly sat on the bench and read books for the courses he was taking. Most days we just played on our own, usually with pickup teams, and sometimes without even keeping score. (Though not for the wussified reason some schools now insist scores not be kept of games.) We sometimes played a game called workup that didn’t even have teams, and featured kids entering and leaving the game. The game was organic and could continue as long as there were a couple of bats and balls and not too many moms had called their kids home to dinner.
As parents were nowhere underfoot back in the day, my teammates never had to ponder the question of their proper place in our athletic exertions. But if they had been, I’m sure we would have quickly concluded that parents have lives of their own and should attend to them. Let the kids be kids on their own. They will soon enough be absorbed into the adult world.
And yes, Commissioner Manfred, the now superannuated guys I’m still in touch with from playground days remain very much interested in baseball. And it’s not these guys’ fault that the grandkids aren’t as keen on baseball. They’ve done all that could be done to keep the flame alive.
The finest game ever devised by God or man will either endure or it won’t. Baseball has already survived insane economics, usurious ticket prices, troglodyte owners, a pit-bull players union, pharmaceutically enhanced sluggers with one big eye in the middle of their foreheads, and noisy ball-yards that assault attendees with ear-splitting rock music and near constant brain-dead promotions. (Who really cares which baseball cap the pea is under?) So perhaps it will survive young Americans boys who pass on playing baseball in favor of computer games or lacrosse (what or whoever the hell that is).
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