Fix the baseball so spring training in Port St. Lucie has a future
At some point in the past two weeks, I stopped worrying about whether there would be spring training games in Port St. Lucie this year.
Now I wonder if professional baseball will survive, period.
Oh, I’m sure this labor dispute between major league baseballTeam owners and players will eventually be resolved. The two sides will agree to team payroll limits, player eligibility for free agency and other areas of dispute.
There will be a regular season and a post-season, although the World Series won’t be played until after Halloween.
Spring training games may be held at Port St. Lucie’s clover park and other stadiums around Florida and Arizona, even though they are played in weather that feels more like summer than spring.
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But I’m looking at the long term picture here. MLB attendance hit a 37-year low in 2021, with the average attendance per game down for the fifth consecutive season (not counting the 2020 season without fans). Baseball attendance was going in the wrong direction before COVID arrived.
A recent survey conducted by Seton Hall University found that 44% of baseball fans (and 30% of all fans) said they would be less interested in baseball because of the labor dispute.
Even more troubling, the same poll found that 54% of all respondents were not interested in MLB before the lockdown began in December.
This matters to those of us who live along the Treasure Coast, even if you agree with the majority of survey respondents.
If MLB’s popularity continues to decline, it stands to reason that interest in spring training will also decline, perhaps to an even greater degree proportionally. This means less expense for people traveling here for gaming.
St. Lucia County is on the hook for debt payments for the next 20 years on improvements to Clover Park carried out primarily for the benefit of the stadium’s main tenant, the New York food.
For the sake of the sport and our local economy, here are five changes America’s national pastime should make to avoid being relegated to fringe sport status.
• First, permanently shorten the season by 162 games.
It’s obvious from the deliberate pace of these negotiations that team owners aren’t too worried about a few games being canceled in April. Especially in northern cities where spring comes late, it can be difficult to get fans to these games, anyway.
Moreover, we have entered the period of the year when National Basketball Association and National Hockey League games are starting to matter. A later start would mean less competition for MLB against those two professional leagues.
Also, the end of the Major League season and its playoffs must go head-to-head with the start of the college and professional football seasons, which is not a game that will end well for baseball. .
A schedule of 120 or 100 baseball games would make individual games more meaningful. Quote from PT Barnum about “always leaving them wanting more” applies to baseball as well as circuses.
• Next, place the pitchers on the clock. I read this week that a 14 second step clock is one of the ideas being floated during these collective bargaining. If pitchers knew they had little time to throw the ball into dangerit would dramatically speed up the pace of the games.
I know pitchers need to be able to hold runners close to keep them from stealing bases. However, a pitcher should be able to throw, either toward home plate or one of the bases, in reasonable time for play to continue.
• Next, limit visits to mounds by players. A manager may only call a time out and speak to a pitcher once per inning before that pitcher must be substituted. Still, catchers and other players seem to have unlimited opportunities to slow down play by talking to pitchers. Stop letting them do this.
• Next, set a time limit for replays. Yes, it is important that referees respond correctly to calls. But if they haven’t been able to see enough video evidence to cancel a call after, say, two minutes of watching slow-motion replays from different angles, then the call made in the field should stand.
• Finally, “bump” the baseballs again.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a player nicknamed Baker “Home Run” though he never hit more than 12 homers in a single season. Nor was it a facetious reference. He is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In those days, hitting a home run was more of a feat than it is in the current “live ball” era. Sure, fans love seeing the homers, but it’s less special when even light shortstops are able to knock the ball out of the park.
Also, if teams couldn’t rely so heavily on home runs, they’d have to go back to some of the more strategic elements for manufacturing runs, like stealing bases, getting runners into scoring position, and using play with hit and run. .
I can’t say for sure that these changes would save baseball. I can only say that without changes, the future of baseball looks uncertain at best and bleak at worst.
Spring training is part of our community identity. For this to be so, the game must evolve and adapt to an age of limited attention spans and ever-increasing alternative entertainment options.
In great evils, great means.
This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 772-232-5424.
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