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Mulvena: MLB has much work to do

| Wednesday, September 4, 2019

I remember the 2006 Subway Series like it was yesterday. Specifically, my memory of the second game of the first series at Shea Stadium is irreversibly etched in the annals of my mind.

It was Saturday, May 20. It was sunny. It was warm, but not too warm; windy, but not too windy. The ice cream in my souvenir Mets helmet cup had melted just enough to make spooning it into my mouth effortlessly enjoyable. At that moment, it was the ninth inning, and all was good. The Mets held a commanding four-run lead over the New York Yankees, who I was conditioned (and thankfully so) to despise, even as an innocent eight-year-old.

And then, in the bottom of that inning, the music started among the raucous cheers of Mets fans who had perhaps indulged a bit too much for a Saturday afternoon. “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. I felt my heart skip a beat. Now, before I go on, many of you may be thinking, “That’s Mariano Rivera’s music, he’s the best ever!” I get it, okay. But for eight-year-old, ginger me in the bright sun at Shea Stadium, “Enter Sandman” was unmistakably the music of the one and only Billy Wagner. The second I heard that menacing music, I was confident the contest was over. I was ready to see some sweet chin music from the lefty, finish my ice cream and head home to bask in the glory. 

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. But I do remember the Mets lost 5-4. I do remember crying uncontrollably on the wide exit ramps of Shea Stadium as barbaric Yankee fans shouted obscenities. I remember feeling absolutely crushed.

But I also remember seeing a fellow Mets fan in the parking lot, an older gentleman, who said to me, “Don’t worry about it, kid. There’s always tomorrow, and that’s why baseball is so great.” I felt better. My love for baseball and my undying emotional connection to the Mets was somewhat restored. I’ll never forget that moment. 

Fast forward to today, and you couldn’t get me to watch any insubstantial MLB game in mid-May if you offered to pay off my student loans. Every now and then, I’ll settle in for a few innings of the end of a Mets game because I still do hold them near and dear to my heart. But I just can’t sit through some other regular season game that has no real bearing on the overall standings. And this phenomenon is well-known at this point in the sports world.

Baseball is on the decline: The average fan is now 57 years old, attendance is down, viewership is down. We all know this stuff is happening. And continually we ask questions about why it’s happening. We turn to things like a “shot clock,” as it were, for pitchers, or any other number of minor impact implementations in an attempt to answer the question. But we all know why baseball viewership and attendance is on the decline.

For the most part, it’s BORING. It’s just flat boring. It tends to ramp up in the playoffs, but in the dog days of August and July, it just doesn’t do it for most of us. Just take a look at this season. Plenty has happened. Home runs have been off the charts. New rookie stars, like Pete Alonso, are breaking records. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. And yet, it seemed as if, for the first half of the season, the country was far more concerned with NBA offseason than the baseball season. It’s certainly understandable, but it’s clear that it’s a far cry from the world of 1985.

I’ve written before on this, but I think the fixes to baseball’s boring problem are actually simple. They’re radical, but simple. I’d shorten the season. Make it 90, even 80 games. There’s no reason that the World Series should be played in the snow. I’d shorten the game itself as well. 9 innings is too much. 4 hours is far too long. Make it 7 innings.

But I think there’s an even bigger problem that baseball has, other than its boring problem. And admittedly, this problem is intertwined with baseball being boring. It seems that baseball is a substantially regional sport. Which is to say that those fans who do exist follow their own team, and that is, for the most part, it. They’re not invested in the workings of other teams like the casual NBA or NFL fan who might cling to the TV during free agency just as much as he or she would during the season. Perhaps this problem could be fixed by making baseball more exciting and making each game mean more.

But I think there’s more to it than that. I don’t know how it can be resolved right now. But I do know that the MLB needs to find a way to engage its audience to be interested not only in the Mets or the Braves or whomever, but in MLB as a whole.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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