Is America’s Favorite Pastime Going “Afoul”?

Is America’s Favorite Pastime Going “Afoul”?

“We’re happy to see that for the first time in the eight-year history of the Vacation Confidence Index, vacation spending will hit an impressive $100 billion. This new milestone is great news for the travel industry,” says Daniel Durazo, director of communications for Allianz Global Assistance USA. As summer bears down, nightly news broadcasts remind us of how many travelers will soon hit the roads, the airports, campgrounds and theme parks looking for ways to spend the long hot days of summer.

When I was a kid growing up in the late 50’s and the 60’s, you could not always count on spending the summer at expensive far away enclaves. So, as the blazing sun of summer began to scorch our neighborhoods, we looked for ways to fill the time until the cooling breath of autumn and school called us back indoors. As eager as we were to see summer come, we were equally pressed to find fun ways to fill all that time. School had its rewards, and one for sure was its ability to burn through time so that you wouldn’t agonize over how long it would be until the next summer.

So, as some of our lucky pals went off into the world, those of us left behind would fill our days and evenings with “the old reliables.” Playing in the woods was always a go-to option. Tree climbing, cowboys and Indians, army, creek jumping and just plain hiking and exploring could always be counted on.

But when there was enough of us knocking on each others’ back doors looking for something to do, it was sports that always came to the rescue. As boys, back then, there was nothing we liked better than forming teams and being competitive. The precursor to our soon to come pubertal testosterone endowments was the drive to be the best, to play a competitive game and to win, at least for that day!

Back then, for those of us in the post-war sprawl of the suburbs, there were few if any close public parks. We relied on our adjoining backyards or the often nearby empty field to create our game space. I, having grown up for the most part in the south, summers were punitively hot and humid. The vapors of midday would all but take your breath. We would occasionally play football, no pads, no helmets whether it was touch or tackle. But we didn’t usually play for long before the heat would take its toll. All that running, all that hitting, all that tackling; first one to 28 was often declared the winner.

Most times it was baseball that was our salvation. Baseball is long, and baseball is slow until a good hit is made. Baseball is capable of taking up an entire afternoon, especially if you could scrounge up enough players for a full team on both sides of the plate. And, if not, you swapped up teammates and played again.

Baseball was more durable in the summer heat than football. And let’s not even mention basketball, that required a backboard, a goal, and a special surface. Few, if any of us, had solid driveways; gravel was all we ever had.

There was a lot of standing around in baseball, especially in the outfield. And when the ball did finally come your way, you played really hard for as much as 15 or 30 seconds. When you weren’t up to bat the hard part; the key to baseball, was to pay attention. Those long, drawn-out periods between pitches and actual hits were sometimes agonizing. But when that ball finally got hit your team captain would command, “You better be awake out there!” The derogatory drone of disappointed teammates as you zoned out while an easy pop fly landed on the ground in front of you was usually enough incentive to keep you alert. If not, hopefully the crack of the bat was. If it was your team’s turn at bat there was more standing around. You kept alert by providing your share of chatter toward the pitcher, hoping to sway the game in your favor. Baseball seemed to be as much a mind game as it was physical. And those many breaks between active plays were essential in keeping us cool enough to get to the end of the game with an apparent winner and without a heat stroke. Baseball was always the game of summer!

Yes, those were the “good old days.” Baseball filled a lot of empty hours during many long, sweltering summers and though we were and still are a football family; I thank and appreciate baseball for its contribution to my well being during those countless days of hot summers. However, I am afraid that those “good old days” may soon be gone and perhaps with them, America’s favorite pastime.

Here’s why I think so. Today my daughter-in-law texted a picture of two of my grandsons in the car heading out, she said, for “B-Ball Sunday.” “Baseball or Basketball?”, I texted back, (expecting the answer to be Baseball). A basketball emoji was quickly texted back. Surprised, I thought for a moment and replied, “is baseball losing its public appeal, or is it just too hot to play outside nowadays?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized; times have changed.

First of all, let’s face it, many of today’s kids are indoor kids. Technology has, at least for the moment, locked the door on outside play. Between video and computer games, cell phones and the power of global communications brought to us by the internet; and of course, air conditioning, there is little incentive for the kids and adults of today to go outside.

But when we do go outside there seems to be no space for impromptu baseball. Our neighborhoods and towns have and continue to develop all vacant lots into profit centers. Houses, strip malls, Big Box stores, endless cookie-cutter chain stores of familiar restaurants, fast food shops, gas stations, grocers, pharmacies … all litter our towns and cities with stone,
glass, concrete, and pavement until no green space is left. The empty fields are gone. And backyards no longer have the space for outdoor games that call on the strength and skill of growing kids who are testing their limits. There is no space to hit a long ball. No, the neighborhoods of today squeeze as many houses as possible into their tracts, and income level rarely seems to matter even on this front.

So where does a rag-tag bunch of boys go nowadays to pound out a few home runs? To the parks you say! Well now, it seems that most city parks where baseball diamonds can readily be found are held hostage to, “organized sports.” During the summers it seems most baseball fields are entirely scheduled and booked by local organized sports teams. In Steven J. Overman’s 2014 book, The Youth Sports Crisis: Out-of-Control Adults, Helpless Kids, the author maintains that “Where urban athletic fields survive, the facilities are monopolized by organized sports leagues. Consequently, children in some neighborhoods are finding few places to play games on their own.” Those hand-picked teams of kids in their matching uniforms and funded by your favorite hardware store or pizza house, play out their season of tournaments where the competition between local businesses is replicated on the field through the sweat and aspirations of our children. Kids and parents with their dreams of scholarships and the rewards of professional sports fill our parks with the calculated and driven plans of fevered coaches looking to gain that notoriety that comes with the success of winning, at all cost! A pickup game of basketball always seems possible, but for baseball, it’s far rarer.

Yes, baseball is taking some hits! Overall attendance has begun to drop and has leveled off since 2008. TV viewership has also suffered. According to Peter Rowe’s San Diego Union-Tribune article on July 8th of last year, “… viewership for Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Classic,” All-Star game, has “fallen 55 percent”. And, the World Series, “now commands about one-eighth the audience of the Super Bowl.

And think about our colleges and universities. Big money comes from football and basketball. They keep athletic departments in the black. Major television contracts follow college football and basketball seasons and culminate with the year’s National Championship games and March Madness with all the advertising build-up and hype that money can buy. But try to follow the college baseball season on a national level, those games, while there, are hard to find, hard to know about and are given little attention relative to the mainstays of college football and basketball. And, need I talk about the hoopla that surrounds the national draft, I think not.

Of course, baseball is still somewhat popular, and Little Leagues across the country continue to keep thousands of kids active throughout the spring and summer. But, the free-spirited pickup games of baseball by kids looking to fill their empty days with the camaraderie of neighborhood friends playing a game in good fun, to pass the time of long hot summer days, seems to be a thing of the past. Those games carry a whole separate nostalgia for me, something fond, something sweet, something warm. However, it is a nostalgia that is daily dropping deeper into the abyss of long ago memories. When I drive through neighborhoods, nowadays I rarely see a kid outside, much less a group of kids playing cooperatively, forming teams and having a friendly game of baseball. Yes, the times have changed. Whether or not for the better, only time will tell.

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