There are now less than two weeks remaining in baseball’s regular season. October is just around the corner. Other than the NL Central, the division races have all but been decided. The move to the second Wild Card last year was met with skepticism by some and applause by others. Those who oppose it find it ridiculous that the two Wild Card teams have to play one, winner-take-all game to advance to the League Division series where they get one day of travel and start a best of five series with two games on the road. I stand on the other side of the fence. I think the one-game Wild Card places a premium on actually winning your division. Why should a team that didn’t win its own division be on par with a team that took care of its own inner-division business? Plus, with MLB still going with a five-game ALDS and home field advantage in baseball usually meaning the least in any of the four major sports in the playoffs, the Wild Card winner should have to fight more of an uphill battle.
The American League Wild Card race is as wide open as any since the advent of the original expanded format in 1994 (There were no playoffs that year due to the strike, but ’94 was the first year of the three divisions in each league). Six teams are separated by two and a half games. Two monster series between four of the teams started last night and will help shape the final two weeks.
The Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays – co-Wild Card leaders heading into last night, started a four-game series inside of Tropicana Field. The Rangers looked like a cinch to make the playoffs two weeks ago, yet they had lost six in a row, and nine of 10 to fall back to the pack. You would think that with so much at stake, the lovely folks in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area would come out in droves to support the Rays in full throat as they have a chance to take over the #1 Wild Card spot. Instead, the lack of fan support for the franchise continued to rear its ugly head as only 10,724 fans showed up to watch the Rays spanking of the Rangers.
I don’t know what the excuse can possibly be down south. Your team has been a fixture in the playoff races over the past six years with a team full of young studs, yet they can’t draw with 13 games left in the regular season with the Rangers in town. But it is an old story for this franchise and baseball in the state of Florida in general. Tropicana Field is the worst stadium in baseball, possibly in pro sports. The Rays have executed the perfect blue print for small market success yet it hasn’t mattered to the people of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and the surrounding towns.
But again, we know about Tampa. What about Kansas City?
The Royals are having their best season in a decade. Last night, they welcomed your Cleveland Indians for what Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a Cleveland native who cut his journalistic teeth in Kansas City, called “the most important baseball game in Kansas City in nearly a quarter-century” Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives. The Indians were a half game behind Tampa Bay and Texas, the Royals trailed by three and a half. But with a soft schedule remaining and a team in front of them coming into their home park, KC had a big shot to make their move. Their ace, James Shields, a guy the front office acquired to pitch in games of this magnitude, was taking the ball. Everything set up for a big crowd, except only 14,000 people attended. The Royals beat the Tribe 7-1 to move to within two and a half games of the Rangers.
The summer before my senior year in College at the University of Kansas, I worked as an intern for the Kansas City Fox affiliate in their sports department. My biggest job was covering the Royals at each home game. They were in the midst of another horrific season, fired manager Bob Boone and replaced him with Tony Muser. It didn’t matter, they were still the talk of the city. Kansas City is a great baseball town and deserves a team the city can be proud of.
After years and years of futility, they finally have that team. Billy Butler is a hitting machine. Alex Gordon is an All-Star. Eric Hosmer is having a breakout season with his sophomore slump behind him. Salvador Perez is one of the best young catchers in baseball and looks like Victor Martinez 2.0. Their bullpen has been tops in the AL this season behind lights out Closer Greg Holland and a bevy of hard-throwing set up men. Shields has been exactly what they have needed at the top of their rotation.
It is all there for the fine fans of Kansas City. Meaningful September baseball is finally being played. Yet 15,413 people came to Kaufmann Stadium last night? To me, that is deplorable.
So while everyone in Cleveland is wringing their hands over the attendance issues involving the Indians, it is not just our problem. Bud Selig, after years of bragging about the overall spike in MLB attendance, has been conspicuously quiet this season. He has a big issue on his hands and not just in a few markets.
Nobody is a bigger baseball fan/lover/supporter than me. It is my number one sport. I love the nuances of the game. No matter how good or bad the team is, I love spending either a summer evening or afternoon at the ballpark with my friends, my wife, my kids, whoever it may be. I especially enjoy taking my kids and teaching them about the beauty of the game, the little things. It is what my father did with me and my brother. But herein lays MLB’s problem. I’m now 37 years old and baseball is still my father’s game. If he were alive, he’d be 71.
I hesitate to call Baseball a “dying sport,” but it is seriously ill. It is easily a distant third with today’s 18-39 demographic. There is still something to be said about the brand names of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the St. Louis Cardinals. But that “cache” if you will, essentially stops right there.
The NFL is the undisputed king thanks to gambling and fantasy football. The NBA is a star driven league and its popularity among America’s youth dwarfs that of MLB’s. Kids can shoot hoops by themselves in their driveway if they want to. Nobody can play baseball by themselves. Gone are the days where we all meet up at the park with 15 or so other kids for a pickup baseball game. Those just don’t happen anymore. But playing one on one, two on two, or three on three Basketball is a lot easier.
MLB has shot themselves in the foot for years being behind the curve with the Internet and social media. Still to this day, the old coots running the league office refuse to allow old games or highlights to be shown on YouTube. Anything that gets posted immediately gets scrubbed off unless MLB.com has it on their site. Why? I teach my kids about the history of the game. But I am unable to find the iconic plays or games online.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pull up highlights or games of say, the ’95 Tribe? What about Kirk Gibson’s iconic homer off of Dennis Eckersley in the ’89 World Series? Francisco Cabrera’s single scoring Sid Bream that sent the Atlanta Braves to the 1992 World Series? Unless you can unearth it on MLB.com, forget it. My three-year old knows how to use YouTube. People have short attention spans. Make it easy on us.
What about fantasy baseball? The original fantasy sport or “Rotisserie” as it was first called, was baseball. I still play fantasy baseball every year. I only have a handful of friends who join me. Yet literally 95% men that I cross paths with regularly own at least one fantasy football team. Heck, my six year old son is in a league. My 12-year old nephew is in his third year of it. I know of a bunch of All-Women fantasy football leagues as well. MLB had the jump on this franchise, but does little to nothing to embrace it the way the NFL has.
The same goes for some of the antiquated rules. The refusal to go to expanded replay is also mind-boggling. It took MLB way too long to get on board with the absolute minimum of replay – home run calls fair or foul, or whether or not a ball hit above the yellow line at the top of the outfield fences.
MLB is losing a generation of fans by being stubborn for no apparent reason. Baseball has to find ways to recapture the 18-39 demo or else the long term ramifications could be scary.
In the meantime, the Indians will come home for a four-game series with Houston starting Thursday night. I really hope people come out to see them play, but I am not holding my breath. I know one person who will be inside of Progressive Field for at least two of the games. Me.