S pring is in the air, and with April every year comes the opening of another baseball season. By the time many of you read this, the Memphis Redbirds’ 2015 season will have begun, with the team’s exhibition game against its major-league affiliate (and owner), the St. Louis Cardinals. Weather permitting, AutoZone Park will be packed for the big game. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this particular contest will almost certainly represent the highlight of the Redbirds’ year, a Pacific Coast League season that will literally and figuratively be over before it begins.As a lifetime baseball fan, one devout enough to spend part of most every March the last two decades watching spring-training games in Florida, I worry about baseball. Okay, maybe not as much as I worry about climate change, paying my bills, or the Grizzlies making a strong playoff run. But I am concerned about the future of what once was described as “our national pastime.” It’s certainly nothing like that in these parts, where football and basketball reign supreme among Mid-South spectator sports. Take, for example, what happened here late last summer. The Redbirds had an excellent season, and followed that with a five-game playoff series with the Omaha Storm Chasers, their aptly named PCL rivals. The teams split two games in Omaha, Memphis lost Game 3 at home, and the Redbirds faced a critical win-or-go-home Game 4 played on the first Saturday evening in September. But the game’s importance was obviously lost upon Memphis sports fans; the Redbirds were eliminated at AutoZone Park — before fewer than 2,000 spectators. That’s the kind of attendance one expects at Rhodes College football games, not for national-pastime playoff encounters.
So what has happened to baseball? All the “experts” tell us that baseball’s decline in popularity is the result of the game being too slow, too cumbersome, and simply out-of-step with the instant-action sports universe of the early twenty-first century. But I think the answer to that question is a bit more complicated.
Baseball remains enormously popular all across America, but virtually all that enthusiasm is concentrated in the 27 markets where major-league teams are located. Think the biggest game in town in Boston is the New England Patriots or the NBA’s Celtics? Think again. Despite the formidable challenge these other teams present, Boston’s baseball Red Sox still garner as much zeal and enthusiasm as their peers. The same is true in New York City (anybody worried about the Yankees going out of business on account of attendance decline?), Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, where fan interest in the baseball Cardinals far exceeds that of the football Rams.
No, baseball’s problems are concentrated in the hinterland, outside of the nation’s top-metro areas. Yes, there may be 176 minor-league baseball teams scattered across America, in every state of the union, but virtually all of them are owned and/or operated as “farm teams” of the major-league clubs. They are, in a very real sense, simply branch operations, whose employees both on and off the field report to “headquarters.” In fact, the on-the-field players in minor-league baseball can be moved around their major-league organizations much like chess pieces. The Redbirds, for example, may find themselves in the middle of a ten-game win streak in the PCL, but if the parent Cardinals need a pitcher and/or slugger to replace an injured player or one who’s fallen upon hard times at the plate, our local heroes will be off to St. Louis quicker than you can say Red Schoendienst.
The sad truth is that baseball’s public profile outside the major-league markets is a mile wide and an inch deep. Ask even an avid Redbirds fan which player is his favorite, and said fan is likely to take a few minutes answering, trying to remember exactly which Cardinal prospect is still on the team this week.
What we have now is the saddest of possible systems for marketing baseball to new and future generations of Americans. Hell, who wants to pay attention to anything that has the word “minor” in its product description?
Football and basketball long ago figured out how to get around this not-so-minor distinction between teams that play at the very top level and those that play at various tiers beneath. In both these sports, the powers-that-be simply call their minor-leaguers “college players.” Think that label doesn’t make a big difference? Then explain why all eastern Washington goes ga-ga over Gonzaga, and why you’ve probably never even heard of the Spokane Indians, a Texas Rangers farm team in the Northwest League. It’s simply impossible for baseball to get around that “minor-league” moniker.
It’s a label that one day might be all baseball’s undoing.