Sports

What’s the matter with baseball? A few suggestions for new commissioner

As Major League Baseball owners were deliberating Thursday over their selection of Rob Manfred as next commissioner, I pondered a bigger picture —the state of the game — and thought of a Yankees' backup catcher named Francisco Cervelli.

More specifically, I thought of the second-inning home run Cervelli hit the other night during a game broadcast on ESPN. As soon as the ball landed over the fence, a television camera zoomed in for a reaction shot of Baltimore pitcher Chris Tillman, whose reaction was typical: He had none.

Tillman had grooved a pitch in the second inning of the Orioles' 119th game of the season. What did the ESPN producer expect the veteran right-hander to do? Stomp off the mound? Fling his glove in disgust?

Meanwhile, Cervelli, not known for his power, was seen only briefly as he trotted around the bases for the 10th time in his career.

Focusing on the guy who gave up the homer, rather than the guy who hit it, reflects the state of baseball in 2014: Fans are inclined to bemoan everything ailing a sport that, in ways that can be quantified on a bottom line, is healthier than ever.

Major League Baseball's gross revenues exceeded $8 billion last season, and that was before $788.3 million kicked in from a new deal with broadcast partners at Fox, ESPN and TBS. In 1995, when peace finally was achieved between the owners and the players' association — a peace that has been sustained, without interruption, for 20 seasons — MLB's gross revenues were $1.4 billion or, adjusted for inflation, $2.2 billion.

That's a 264 percent increase in gross revenues. There was a temptation to include the adjective "whopping" in front of the "264 percent" in the previous sentence, but some gross-revenue increases speak for themselves.

As for competitive imbalance and the advantage major market teams hold over everybody else, it's all hooey. Check out the standings in the National League Central: Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati are vying for playoff berths, while the Cubs — supposed beneficiaries of a Chicago market that's the nation’s third largest — began retooling for 2015 a few weeks into 2014.

Granted, dwelling on how a single divisional race is shaping up midway through August epitomizes "small sample size." So here's a more comprehensive sample size: Since the Yankees won the first of their four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000, eight cities have organized championship parades. Two from markets substantially smaller than New York — St. Louis and Miami — have done it twice.

Manfred will take on a job with challenges, to be sure. An obvious priority must be picking up baseball's pace.

Memo to you hitters who step out of the box to do whatever you do when readjusting your batting gloves — reboot the thought process? — and you pitchers who require a half-minute of reflection after the catcher has put down his sign: A new sheriff will be sworn in next season, and it's likely he won't tolerate dawdling.

Regenerating baseball's appeal will be another task. The notion kids aren't drawn to the sport because it demands an attention span of longer than 1.2 seconds is silly. If kids aren't drawn to the sport, it's because the essential tasks — throwing a ball on target, fielding a ball hit with a wicked spin, putting a bat on a ball that either breaks or doesn't — are beyond any kid's definition of difficult.

But enough, please, with the psychobabble about how young black athletes have severed any kind of connection with baseball. A team from the South Side of Chicago, representing a program that has tethered a hard-scrabbled community familiar with the sound of sirens, advanced Thursday from the first round Little League World Series.

For those blessed with the skills to be good at it, baseball is the most fun sport to play. For those who weren't good at it, baseball, during the daily, soap-opera ebb-and-flow of a playoff race, is the most fun sport to follow.

Retiring commissioner Bud Selig always has emphasized baseball's still-strong grip with the American public, and the attendance numbers underscore his point: Franchise owners who were overjoyed to draw 1 million fans a season during baseball's "golden era" of the 1950s now expect 2 million fans for a season.

But Selig, the former car salesman, couldn't complete the sell. He never has been able to the quell the misconception that baseball is a dying sport.

My advice to Rob Manfred? Speak softly, carry a big stick, and remind the producers of baseball game telecasts that hitting a home run provides a more indelible image on a TV screen than surrendering a home run.

When Kirk Gibson hit the ninth-inning, two-run homer that won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers, he pumped his forearms between first base and second, in the manner of somebody trying to start a reluctant lawn mower.

Gibson's was a home-run trot for the ages, seen in its entirety, and we didn't need a close-up reaction shot of pitcher Dennis Eckersley to suspect he had better nights.

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