Baseball isn’t a 12-month sport, and it doesn’t need to be

For all the hand-wringing surrounding MLB’s second consecutive quiet offseason, it’s hard to find a compelling argument that baseball should care about its winter hibernation.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Those words may have been penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby nearly a hundred years ago, but they could just as well have been written about baseball today. Like Gatsby, baseball isn’t baseball without its past. Constantly under criticism and fears that the end is nigh, baseball just keeps humming along, living its American dream.

After all, isn’t it kind of insane that two of the league’s brightest young superstars in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned with less than a month until pitchers and catchers report? Yeah, it is. Is it frustrating that the league appears to be held hostage by agent-for-the-stars Scott Boras yet again? Sure, absolutely.

But the baseball world keeps turning just the same. It may have taken until spring training was well underway last year, but the Boston Red Sox eventually inked J.D. Martinez. The journeyman slugger finished third in MVP voting and helped lead the Sox to a World Series title. Harper and Machado will soon find homes of their own, and the season will start on time as it always does. Sunrise, sunset.

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And when the offseason dust settles and pitchers and catchers report, the warmth and optimism of spring training will take hold along the beaches of Florida and across the desert of Arizona, and baseball will beat on. Just like it always does.

A manufactured crisis

If you’ve paid attention to the baseball-is-dying crowd — described as a “death march” in some corners of the internet and compared to General Motors in others — you’d think baseball had a bad year in 2018. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, overall attendance was at its lowest since 2003, but the league’s official reasoning for the dip is largely due to poor weather in April and May. That argument holds plenty of water, no pun intended. The league had a record 28 April postponements, along with 102 games played below 50 degrees. MLB attendance was down more than 10 percent in April alone, and the league still clawed back to just a four percent decrease year-over-year when all was said and done. Remember, this is only Year Two of the apparent baseball-killing Cold Stove offseason, so we don’t exactly have tons of data to back up the idea that a slow offseason is truly hurting baseball.

Television ratings are perhaps the more important factor to examine when considering baseball’s popularity. And don’t let the bah-humbugs drown this out: regional MLB television ratings were up in 2018, and of the 24 markets with a regional sports network on cable television, only Miami didn’t see baseball rank as the top primetime show.

Maybe some of the folks who didn’t want to brave the cold early in the season stayed home and tuned in on TV. Either way, it’s hard to argue that one year of marginal decline over the course of 15 years is some sort of death march.

Baseball is different

This may shock you, but baseball is vastly different from its sister sports, the NFL and NBA.

The NFL has bent over backwards to make their product “more than just a sport,” to make it a 12-month spectacle to behold. It’s worked for the most part, with the playoffs extending into February and the NFL Scouting Combine now a four-day televised event later that month, then  free agency in March and the draft in April. May brings rookie camp, and June is really the only news-less month until training camps and Hard Knocks in July.

The NBA isn’t far off, with preseason in September up through the NBA Finals in June. The draft comes just a week or two later, and free agency in July means August is the only truly slow month on the hoops calendar. The NBA too has become a 12-month sport, and all the more so with the way its biggest characters are ever-visible in our lives on #NBATwitter.

Baseball’s Hot Stove has really only been the annual Winter Meetings in early December, plus a few extra days on either side of the actual event when rumors flew and players changed teams. That Stove might have cooled a bit the past couple of years, but let’s not pretend as though January has always been an exciting time in the baseball offseason. It isn’t like less is happening, it’s just spread out more than in past years. Is that ideal for the hype machine? No, but again, it remains unclear that the hype machine really does anything for baseball.

Just because one sour author says that because he couldn’t pick Mike Trout of a crowd — okay, not a “crowd”, a group of baseball players, on the field, wearing uniforms — doesn’t mean baseball is going down the tubes. In fact, he may have inadvertently made a great point.

Baseball’s biggest stars are still nowhere near as popular as the secondary stars in other sports, and because of this relative anonymity, the earning potential remains lower. Secondary stars in the NFL and MLB are practically household names while chunks of the All-Star rosters in the Mid-Summer Classic look no different to the casual observer than the fake Minnesota Twins players taking on Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson in Little Big League. (“You gotta do what you gotta do, Junior.”)

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter.

Baseball will do its thing again in 2019, overall ballpark attendance will hover around 72 million, local TV ratings will hold steady, and millions upon millions of casual fans will load up and head to the ballpark for a beer, a brat, and some sunshine.

Baseball relies heavily on the casual fan, and those fans aren’t going to leave because Bryce Harper signed in late January instead of early December.

Eighty-one regular-season openings are simply too many to fill a 40,000-plus seat stadium with diehards, so there have to be some distracted dads watching NFL training camp highlights on their mobile devices while dragging an SUV full of 12-year-olds to the game. MLB needs church groups of parents who just want to read their novels and kids that want to play tag in the upper deck. It needs daycares and schools to fill the stands during mid-week day games. It’s those folks that will look up from their phone and say, “Huh, didn’t realize that Josh Donaldson was on the Braves this year,” and go back to scrolling through their Twitter feed. And that’s just fine.

In other words, the exact “type” of fan that the NFL is trying desperately to find and keep close and invested are the types of fans that Major League Baseball needn’t worry about losing.

A baseball game isn’t one-eighth of the home slate with an all-day tailgate like each NFL game, and it isn’t two-and-a-half hours of thumping music, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, and vociferous booing of the refs like the NBA. It’s a three-plus hour journey, occuring at its own pace, allowing spectators to enjoy the game, have a conversation, or take a lap around the ballpark while sipping a craft beer and keeping an eye on the action.

That same leisurely pace is the way baseball exists 12 months out of the year. Baseball is the national pastime, after all, and it doesn’t need to jingle its keys in front of your face for weeks on end, just to fill the void with news that the players are working out together in exotic locales.

Baseball holds itself in higher regard, in an above-the-fray manner that remains effective even in the age of second-screens, manufactured hysteria, and the 24-hour news cycle. Baseball is a constant, year after year serving as a late-winter getaway for the family at Fort Myers or Saddleback Ranch. It’s the background noise of a spring fishing trip, a companion for the dog days of summer, and the most dramatic primetime television in the month of October.

There are admittedly valid concerns from the player’s union related to player contracts signed later and with less favorable terms, as well as in terms of competition — teams tanking versus genuinely trying to win — but those are different conversations than the hand wringing and played-out “baseball is dying” narrative.

Baseball does things a little different than the other major American sports, and it’s just fine with that, thank you very much. Cuz frankly, this is how it’s always been.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…

Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.



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