Baseball is the greatest game on earth. It isn’t perfect – it would be if you didn’t have to refinance your home to take the wife and kids to the ballpark, and if they had a better selection of beer, and if they played the blues between innings instead of those hideous pop tunes – but, hey, it’s awfully damn close.
And tonight the greatest game on earth gets its signature moment, its pinnacle, it’s Ray Charles singing Georgia on My Mind:
Game Seven of the World Series.
A season that began on the first day of April will end tonight, seven months and some 175 games later. One game, winner take all. One guy gets to sip champagne. The other guy goes home and cries in his Bud. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Too bad nobody will be watching.
In case you haven’t heard – in case you even care – the ratings for the World Series are down. Way down. Dangerously down. Very-bad-for-the-future down. According to a piece in today’s Chicago Tribune:
The numbers are frightening. Heading into Game 6, the Series was averaging 12.1 million viewers per game. Game 1 in Kansas City was the lowest-rated World Series opener of all time with an average of 12.2 million viewers, while Game 4 in San Francisco only drew an average of 10.7 million.
Sunday’s Game 5 rose to a 12.6 million average, but still lost out to Sunday Night Football, where the Saints trounced the Packers. According to Variety, Sunday Night Football’s ratings beat Game 5 by a 39 percent margin, the biggest difference since World Series games began competing against the Sunday night games on NBC in 2010.
In the New York Times last week:
But this week, more people watched “NCIS: New Orleans” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and — for that matter — “The Walking Dead,” the cable show about zombies. The audience for “Sunday Night Football,” a regular season game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos, was almost twice that of Games 1 or 2. Even last Saturday night’s college football matchup — Florida State University versus Notre Dame — drew more viewers than either World Series game.
Perhaps the most compelling statement about baseball’s relative standing among American sports fans is this: Last summer’s World Cup match between the United States and Portugal drew 25 million viewers, roughly double that of the World Series opener.
This is when baseball fans inevitably quote the great sage Yogi Berra, who once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?”
Here’s how: Baseball, our national pastime, has to go forward to its past, to a time before it sold its soul for a buck.
I’ll never forget my first Game Seven. I was 9-years-old, and I was a Yankee fan. The Dodgers and Giants had gone west, the Yankees were the only team in town and that was the summer I’d fallen in love with Mickey and Roger and Moose and Bobby and Tony and Clete and Yogi and Elston and Whitey and Ralph and, of course, Casey. So on the day before my 10th birthday I ran home from school and turned on the television just in time to watch Bill Mazeroski hit a home run over Yogi’s head. The Pirates won Game Seven of the World Series, and I was sitting in my room, crying.
Years later, Bart Giamatti would write that baseball “is designed to break your heart.” He didn’t have to tell me. I already knew.
But that was then. That was when they played the World Series in sunlight, and 9-year-olds, the fans of the future, could watch the game. Not anymore. These days, the games all start at 8:15 p.m. or so, and they last about 3 1/2 hours, and who’s going to let his 9-year-old stay up to watch the Big Game when there’s school the next day?
Answer: Pretty much nobody. But if 9-year-olds aren’t watching, then the game isn’t breaking their hearts. And if the game isn’t breaking their hearts, baseball’s in big trouble.
So why are all the games played at night? Because night games get better ratings and more commercial dollars than day games – or at least they used to. If they still do, they won’t for long. Because the geniuses who run baseball have shut out a whole generation of future fans.
And it’s not just the World Series. When was the last time you watched an entire All-Star Game? I remember sitting in a steamy room in summer camp, along with every other boy in camp, in 1964, watching Johnny Callison win it for the National League with a walkoff home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Now they play the game at night. Now that walkoff home run would happen at about half past midnight, when the Eastern and Central time zones have long since gone to sleep.
They’ve also watered down the whole meaning of the games. The All-Star Game used to be your chance to see Sandy pitch to the Mick, Denny pitch to Willie, Feller pitch to Stan the Man. Now . . . you see that all the time, thanks to the abomination known as interleague play. Yeah, it puts a few more fannies in the seats for a couple of games, especially the hometown “rivalries” like the Mets vs. Yanks, Dodgers vs. Angels, Giants vs. A’s, Cubs vs. White Sox . . . but it really hurts the magic of the All-Star Game and the World Series. These days, these guys face off all the time.
But night games and interleague play aren’t baseball’s biggest problem. The biggest problem is:
Playoffs. Yeah, I said playoffs. And even more than playoffs, wildcards.
Once upon a time, there used to be two leagues, the American League and the National League. And winner of each league went to the World Series.
Then they went to two leagues, each with two divisions, East and West. And the winners of each division played off to determine who would go to the World Series.
And then they went to two leagues, each with three divisions, East, West and Central. And the winners of each division plus the best second-place team in each league, aka the wildcard team, would play off to get into a playoff to get into the World Series.
But that wasn’t enough. Now they’ve gone to two wildcard teams, which play off to make the playoffs to make the playoffs to make the Series. Baseball’s postseason used to be over in nine days, tops. Now it lasts four weeks.
Quick now . . . Name the 10 teams who made the playoffs this year. Who beat whom in how many games to get to tonight? I’m betting even the sportswriters can’t do it without a cheat sheet.
For the record, the best team in the American League this year was the Angels. The best team in the National League was the Nationals. The second best teams were the Orioles and the Dodgers. The third best teams were the Tigers and the Cardinals.
None of those teams are playing tonight. The playoff system has rendered a 162-game regular season meaningless. You play six grueling months and your reward for finishing in first place is a home-team advantage.
Which brings us to tonight. Game Seven. Two teams – the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals – that weren’t even good enough to win their divisions.
And that’s why people won’t be watching tonight. The World Series is supposed to pit the two best teams in the game against each other. But tonight, Game Seven – the finest moment in the greatest sport in the world – features two teams who really don’t belong.
But that’s OK, because the kids can’t watch anyway. They have school tomorrow, and the game probably won’t end till midnight. And that, too, is OK, since everyone’s getting rich. For now.
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