Friday, March 6, 2015

Baseball's a Helluva Drug

92? I didn't know they had D-linemen in baseball...

Like many Northeast baseball fans I found myself searching through the AtBat app looking for what Spring Training games might be available the first two days. Whether its this awful winter or my new obsession with Ken Giles and the Philly's bullpen I am Jonesin' for some baseball. And the strange thing is, I'm not the only one.

Take a look at some of the attendance numbers from the first Friday of Spring Training baseball:

Grapefruit League:

Twins at Rays - 4,148

Nationals at Braves - 5,936

Yankees and Phillies - 7,365

Tigers at Mets - 7,444

Marlins at Red Sox - 9,830

Cactus League: 

Rockies at Angels - 5,739

Giants at Rangers - 7,497

Reds at Cubs - 15,331

That's right. Over 15,000 people showed up to see Jon Lester throw 2 innings. The only "Baby Cub" to even make an appearance was Javier Baez. Unless you count Mike Olt and no one does.

Now, these might seem like meh numbers to a lot of people considering that the smallest parks in MLB hold around 37k and most parks draw at least 20k plus a night. But having spent a lot of time around a AAA team (Where many of the players who played today will wind up this season) I can tell you that crowds around and over 10k in the right sized ballpark are nothing to sneeze at. In fact you can really get a stadium rocking with those kinds of numbers and quite honestly you only get them on the weekends in the summer.

So what gives? Why are these Spring Training games so popular? It could be price. In a quick glance at ticket prices for these early games seem to be going for anywhere between $10-$40. Which might seem like a bargain at MLB prices, but exceeds anything that you would pay for a minor league game (once again where the vast majority of these players will wind up). 

Another possibility might be that Spring Training is played in baseball starved areas. I might buy that reason for the Grapefruit league in Florida if the Rays and Marlins weren't already within easy driving distance (especially considering that everyone in Florida drives 105 mph everywhere). Also laying low that argument is the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays 2014 average attendance was just under 18k per home game. That tells me that central Florida (home to the Grapefruit League) isn't baseball starved, its baseball indifferent. Now I understand that there are other factors that go into the Rays' poor attendance: their field is a converted convention center, I've read its in kind of a bad location, Florida is America's armpit (just repeating what I've heard), blah, blah, blah. But way more that 18k people turned out to see MLB players for a couple of innings and then minor league players for the rest on Friday. Why can't those people turn out for the Rays who have been a highly entertaining team to watch for the better part of a decade?

And don't even get me started in the Cactus League. The Diamond Backs play in downtown Phoenix and every Cactus League team has a facility nearby. I'll admit that I don't understand the American Southwest all that well (It's hotter than Satan's ass crack & there's no water. THERE'S NO WATER), but I do know what highways look like and if any of these facilities are more than an hour away from downtown Phoenix then feel free to take to internet and label me a moron. That town ain't baseball starved. That's all I'm trying to get at. So why on Earth did 15k people show up to a Spring Training game?

So as I sifted through possible explanations two commonalities remained on my screen. You know what Florida and Arizona both have a lot of? Old people. And you know who really likes baseball? Yep, old people. Who has lots of free time to take in an afternoon baseball game on a weekday? You guessed it, old people.

It seems so obvious now. But what does it really mean? Is it like other Spring Training stats and completely meaningless? Or is there more to it?

That MLB has the oldest fan base all the 4 major sports seems sort of odd considering how baseball is probably the best suited sport for the internet age. Its perfect for Twitter because there is plenty of time between action to fire off a snarky tweet about an awkward Ryan Howard swing or 2nd guessing a managers in game decision from a thousand miles away. Baseball has also been probably one of the more discussed sports in America and more words have been published than could ever be read. It was also the first sport to truly embrace advanced metrics and the internet has been amazing at spreading that gospel.

Unfortunately, young people tend to trend as stupid. I was young once, I know. Baseball is a game that requires patience and perspective. Something that your average teenager cannot even define let alone practice. Baseball is something that you love as a child, neglect as a teen (chasing booze, drugs, & tail are WAY more fun), and rediscover as an adult. And that's OK. You can't properly appreciate watching a player mature through his career until you have lived enough life to know that nothing lasts forever.

So numbers may tell us that the average baseball fan is trending older, but it might not be the canary in the coal mine some think it is. Games are on awfully late for children. Teenagers don't care about anything. In your 20-40's you're building a family, career, etc., but it seems like in your golden years, the game starts to make a little bit more sense. Like clockwork its there damn near every day for the better part of 8 months and its just plain fun to watch a child grow into an adult within the confines of an artificial environment. And when your forced to endure those long, harsh winters trying to rationalize to yourself why following the NFL is still OK or planning on which NBA team to follow next, you start to miss the stability that baseball provides.

My advice, just lean in to it. Enjoy being a child those first few weeks of Spring Training leading all the way up to opening day. After that its OK, if you miss some April & May games. Things start coming together in June and by July you'll know what you've got on your hands. By then you can settle in for August & September just in time for the Post Season. That's when the game really gets interesting.

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