As baseball grew into the American pastime it was all about being as close to the game as possible. This was achieved by actually attending a game or meticulously following the action through the flowery accounts of newspapers. Fans swore allegiance to specific teams and individual players that represented their community or because they liked how they conducted themselves on the field. It was all about the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and getting as close as possible to experiencing it all first-hand. This is no longer the case, as baseball is now primarily consumed from afar.
It’s about the convenience of avoiding inconvenience. Fans wanting to watch a game now have multiple options. They can drop $27 (MLB 2012 average) on a ticket, another $15-$25 on parking, $20+ on food and beverages, and untold money and time in travelling to the game. On the other hand they can sit at home or in their favorite local watering hole and watch an assortment of games on 60-inch high definition televisions with surround sound, replete with expert analysis, multiple camera angles and replays, comfortable seating, and 40 cent sodas from Costco or $3 pints of whatever is on tap at the tavern. Other than sentimentalists who still enjoy rubbing the ivy at Wrigley or scooping up vials of dirt from the warning track of Fenway, there is now little incentive to actually go to games. The best access to any game, team, or players now comes from the comfort of a living room instead of the ballpark.
It’s about the action off the field. In an increasingly voyeuristic society many fans get as much or more enjoyment from the behind the scenes elements than the actual games. You may hear occasional grumbling about how much the drama of baseball has come to dominate, but there is a reason why the media continues covering those storylines with such vigor; the fans eat it up. Hearing about which players hate their manager, elaborate schemes to knock a few years off of birth certificates, and plots to hide performance enhancement drug positive tests are just a few recent storylines that have little to do with the game on the field and are eaten up by the fans. We live in a National Enquirer and TMZ kinda world, and baseball is no exception.
It’s about the fantastical. People love fantasy sports, as evidenced by the estimated 32 million Americans and Canadians who annually play. While the majority still flock to fantasy football, around 5-7 million play the baseball version. Rotisserie, head-to-head, keeper, dynasty, and AL or NL-only are just some of the types of leagues baseball fantasy nerds can join to compete for prizes and bragging rights. It’s a way for fans to build a team around their own sensibilities and see if they have what it takes establish a winner. Playing fantasy baseball gives fans a reprieve from being subjugated to the whims and bizarre decisions of their favorite teams’ despotic general manager or manager. They get to live and die by their own decisions and prove once and for all if they have the baseball chops they have always proclaimed to possess.
It’s about the math. Fans have always enjoyed the numbers of baseball, but what are being thrown around today are not your father’s stats. Sabermetric statheads have continued developing ways to narrow down the probability of a player’s performance, along with finding new ways to measure their effectiveness. As it turned out we were all wrong when we thought things like RBIs, pitcher wins, and Gold Gloves were good ways to determine if a player was any good. New stats like BABIP, UZR, WAR, and OPS have been embraced as more accurate tools of evaluation. No, those aren’t acronyms for new-aged medical degrees, they are the many ways math has been used to increasingly boil down baseball to the decimal point. Some remain wary of the new numbers, but it’s hard to beat the reliability of math. This trend will only grow as the search for the most accurate analysis of the hows and whys of baseball continues.
Baseball remains wildly popular but fans no longer consume the game in the same way. Like anything in life, nothing remains the same forever, and baseball has evolved at a rapid pace. In another 100 years the game will certainly look completely different from how it does now, but it remains to be seen what will change. Right now baseball is most enjoyed from afar and behind the scenes, a far cry from the traditional refrain of “Take me out to the ballgame.” Perhaps it’s time for baseball to find itself a new song.
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