Todd Wolfrum
Todd Wolfrum

“We’re all told that we can’t play the children’s game anymore. Some of us are told at 18 and some are told at 40, but we’re all told.” – scout in the movie Moneyball.

Baseball ain’t what it used to be and that’s been true for some time now. A Harris Poll in January of this year found that 35 percent of sports fans favor NFL football. Major League Baseball finished second at 15 percent. When the same poll was taken in 1985, the NFL led only 24 percent to 23 percent. The 2014 NFL tally doesn’t include college football, which rakes in another 11 percent for the gridiron – three times as many people say football is their favorite sport as do baseball.

So is baseball, America’s game during its rise to superpower status, a fading institution? Well, if football, basketball, and baseball all were created yesterday, it would be long odds that baseball would see the end of the week. The pace doesn’t fit modern society as the other two do. Nor does it fit the socialist trend of the world. Baseball is a game for capitalists. Japan and South Korea play baseball - China plays ping-pong.

The game has always had two real hooks. The first is history. The steroid era of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez that we’re still somewhat living illustrated something about the soundness of the game – that outrageous numbers have outrageous explanations. A .300 hitter in 1940 is relatively the same as a .300 hitter in 2010. Forty home runs then is 40 home runs now, unless you take something that gives you freakish strength – then it becomes 60. The best players are only slightly better than the really good ones, but it’s as noticeable now as it was then.

Because its history is such a draw, baseball changes with great reluctance. The big change this year is instant replay, something other sports have used for over a decade. It’s hard to argue against getting a call right. But for fans, it’s a strange drama unfolding this year in the majors - managers strolling out to umpires after close calls and chatting politely while someone in the dugout watches the replay and decides whether to appeal. Earl Weaver is turning over in his grave.

In a game paced to enable casual conversation in the stands, arguing on the field seems sacrosanct. Sedateness is hardly the remedy for a game considered too slow by critics. Lou Pinella throwing second base would have been the highlight of any trip to the ballpark, as would have Billy Martin kicking dirt on an umpire. The second big hook of the game is that it grabs you when you’re too young to know any better – when you’re susceptible to making bad decisions like becoming a Cubs fan. Kids’ imaginations aren’t as up for grabs in 2014. I was of the first generation of video game youth, but our video games played on an Atari 2600. It was what you did after a day of playing outside. Anyone with kids knows that today’s video games are what a lot of boys want to do instead of going outside.

Couple the video assault with the restructuring of today’s Little Leagues - where the imaginations of the players pale in comparison with those of the coaches, many of whom see themselves building dynasties and preparing their own kids for the majors - and you can see where this is all headed. Not necessarily tomorrow, but almost certainly a generation from now.

I’ll still watch and so will the guys my age but that decline in popularity is no anomaly. We’ll take our kids to the games and hope they see some of what we saw in it. But as plans advance to put a jumbotron in the left field of Wrigley Field soon, the question needs asked: How will anyone ever be able to again see what we saw, provided they even wanted to?