Baseball isn’t what it once was

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 28, 2008

Some observations about baseball as we head to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July:

* When I was growing up baseball was king. The first year I really watched baseball was 1973, and I can still remember seeing Willie Mays tribute night on TV. That year, the Mets were in the World Series, and I was heartbroken to see my hometown team lose in to the hated Reds.

The next year, I saw Hank Aaron break the all-time home run record on television. Back then Monday Night Baseball was on the tube, and I waited in anticipation as Aaron cracked the record against the Dodgers and Al Downing.

* I can still remember the thrill of the subway train, coming out of the ground, reaching the elevated stage, looking out the dirty windows and seeing Shea Stadium for the first time.

Of all things, I saw the Yankees play the Oakland A’s in a doubleheader in 1974. Yankee Stadium was under renovation that year and the Yankees and the Mets shared Shea Stadium.

* Ripping open packs of Topps baseball cards, which at that time were about a dime, was a ritual, even if I got my 10th Bob Forsch &uot;traded&uot; card.

* My friends and I played some form of baseball almost every day over the summer, from the time we woke up, until sundown, pausing only for meals and a dip in the public swimming pool.

* Over the years, because of work stoppages and use of performance enhancing drugs by even the stars of the game, baseball has become tarnished.

Or has it?

Amazingly to me, Major League Baseball set an attendance record last year, despite the steroids scandal and the fact it cost a small fortune to get in to a MLB game. Last year, 10 MLB teams drew over three million fans. Eleven MLB teams have set team attendance records in the last three years.

In 1973, the first year I watched baseball, the average attendance at a Major League Baseball game was 15,496. That figure was up to 31,256 per game in 1994, the year of the big strike which cancelled the World Series. In 1995, attendance plummeted to 25,022. In 2007, the average was back up to 32,766. The turnstiles have been spinning hard in 2008, and MLB could set another record this year.

At the same time baseball attendance has grown at the major league level, there seems to be contradictions all around us.

I’m sure baseball has lost some of its purists. After the strike in 1994, I refused to watch an MLB game until the 1995 World Series.

A friend of mine who was a huge baseball fan refuses to this day to watch baseball because of the strike and because of the drug infractions which inflated home run numbers. Now we are finding out pitchers were also involved.

I find it really hard to sit at the TV and watch an entire baseball game. I have no problem watching an entire NFL game.

Kids, including mine, got bored of the game, and stopped playing.

Earlier this year, I was watching the &uot;Civil Rights&uot; baseball game on ESPN, where the announcers constantly lamented the fact that baseball participation among African-American players has dropped off drastically in the last 10 years.

This appears to be true not only in the major leagues, but also in the college ranks and the high schools. While watching the College World Series and recent Coastal Plain League games, I saw very few African-American players.

In the local high schools this spring, the same was true. Whereas African-American student athletes dominated basketball and football teams, there were probably fewer than 10 black baseball players among the Southampton, Franklin and Windsor squads.

Baseball teams — major and minor league — have had to set up other attractions at the parks to lure kids to the games. Back in the day, there was just the game.

* Despite all of the negatives, there also seems to be hope, especially locally. I recently wrote a story about little league baseball coming back to Ivor for the first time in three decades. To watch those kids run onto the field put a smile on my face.

A traveling team based in Southampton County and Franklin was launched this spring. The Western Tidewater Hurricanes started

the program so that local baseball players wouldn’t have to travel to Suffolk or Chesapeake to play on traveling teams.

The baseball (and softball) program that is run by the Windsor Athletic Association continues to thrive and send top-notch talent to the Windsor High School baseball team.

Maybe baseball’s not dead after all.

More on the franklin girls

I had the honor of attending a celebration for the Franklin High School girls basketball team on Tuesday night at the Franklin Sportsman Association Building.

The team was honored with T-shirts and very nice jackets, which were all paid for out of the goodness of sponsors. The celebration was hosted by Toni Hunt, who was the team mom during the season, the parents of the players, and mentors Mr. and Mrs. Waverly Lawrence.

Like I said in an earlier column, going to the state championship game is something those players will always remember.