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Baseball ranks last for this sports fan

It's the opening week of the Major League Baseball season, a time of year when you hear how great it is to once again see the old horsehide sailing above manicured green fields.

And all I can think is: Does anyone still really care?

Maybe not that much. The World Series' television audience share has plunged from a peak of 59 percent in 1971 to 14 percent when our community treasure (or so this paper tells us), the Tampa Bay Rays, played in the 2008 edition.

(A slightly higher percentage of viewers tuned in last year, apparently drawn by the stirring tradition of the New York Yankees buying a title.)

Of course, other numbers seem to indicate baseball is still doing okay. Attendance has fallen during the recession, but it's still a lot higher than it was in the 1970s, which I always think of as the sport's last golden age.

I think that way, probably, because I grew up in Cincinnati loving the Reds. Which should make it clear that this is all just my impression. I'm not an expert. I'm just a sports fan who hates baseball.

I hate the phony way it parades as America's Game, when in this country it's a second-tier, suburban sport, played by kids whose parents drive them to practices and buy them time in batting cages.

Joe Mauer may be a special athlete, but it seems to me that he's not as special as LeBron James or Peyton Manning, and that he didn't have to beat out nearly as many slightly less-special athletes to get where he is today. You're a hotshot when you make your school's football or basketball teams; baseball is one of the sports you turn to when you can't, or can't be a star.

Then there's the old complaint about baseball's incredibly sluggish pace, which may have been tolerable when you were taking in a showdown of a past generation's James and Manning — Willie McCovey, say, against Sandy Koufax — but seems a hideous waste of time when you know you are watching something far less.

So, I hate that, too.

I wouldn't hate it so much if I could ignore it, if baseball's presence in sports pages and on Sportscenter wasn't so out of proportion to its entertainment value.

Why is it? Because this once really was a great time of year, when you could walk through city neighborhoods and hear the game on every radio on every front porch, when entire communities actually were united behind teams. We wish it still was, us old folks who remember it that way. So that's what baseball really is, a nostalgia act.

Also, a lot of these older folks are television executives and city leaders who have invested big money in baseball and promote it to protect their investment. Heaps of cash are involved, which is another reason to hate it.

But wait. Is it really fair to single out one of many money-ravaged American sports for this reason? Well, I just read that the Yankees' payroll ($200 million) is nearly three times as high as the Rays ($73 million). So, yeah, I think it's fair.

For this reason, the Rays would almost be likable if I didn't hate baseball: They built a team with brains, not brute spending power.

But they are blowing it now, holding the community over the barrel, saying we face a community tragedy (The loss of a baseball team!) if we don't help build a new stadium with money that could be spent on education, rapid transit or countless other needs.

That's what I really hate.

Baseball ranks last for this sports fan 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 7:02pm]
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