On Opening Day, Baseball Fans Pull Up A Chair And Wait

On Opening Day, Baseball Fans Pull Up A Chair And Wait

A virus spawned in a city nearly 7,500 miles from the penultimate station on the seven-train has managed to bully the multi-billion-dollar sport into going on hiatus for the foreseeable future.
Jason Epstein

All 30 clubs in Major League Baseball were slated to take the field today. To kick off the season, at 1:10 p.m. the Nationals and Mets were to face off in New York while the Tigers and Indians were to do battle in Cleveland.

Instead, Citi Field in Queens and 14 other cathedrals of the national pastime will stand empty. A virus spawned in a city nearly 7,500 miles from the penultimate station on the seven-train has managed to bully the multi-billion-dollar sport into going on hiatus for the foreseeable future.

Over on MLB Network, expect programming to offer little consolation. It’s showing a hodgepodge of canned film, from Ken Burns’s documentary series to blooper videos to Little Big League to video of all-time great games from the recent and distant past, such as the ones involving the ball that rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs, Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run, and Mark Buehrle’s perfecto. It’s little more than rubbing salt in the wound.

For how long will baseball lifers be stuck in this newest circle of Hell? After being teased with several weeks of spring training camps and exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, now we’ve got nothing. No MLB, no minor leagues, no independent ball, no college ball, no games in Japan, no games in South Korea, no games in Mexico, no games in the Caribbean, no games in Venezuela. Nothing.

Do casual fans care? Sure, most ballparks sell out on Opening Day, but interest subsequently fades, particularly in northern cities with outdoor venues, where vendors walking up and down the aisles are more likely to hawk hot chocolate than Miller Lite.

At the end of the 2018 regular season, Forbes columnist Maury Brown noted attendance had dipped by 4 percent from the year before. In a statement to Brown, the commissioner’s office claimed the setback was “primarily connected to the historically bad weather we faced back in the spring,” which had included a record 28 postponements and 102 games played in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

So has the Wuhan coronavirus revealed what some of us deep down already suspected? While Opening Day signals the start of spring, isn’t baseball really an activity meant to be played or viewed on balmy days and reasonably comfortable nights? When I played high school ball in a rock-riddled park in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Mill Basin, located a mile or so from the Atlantic Ocean, it wasn’t until well into May that the brutally stinging pain felt whenever my aluminum bat connected with the ball finally dissipated.

Look, isn’t this why we professional ballplayers are affectionately called “The Boys of Summer?” While no one confuses weather forecasts during the last week of October with the Fourth of July, at least the World Series signifies we’re putting a bow on the season before winter settles in.

Maybe not. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs last May analyzed MLB attendance numbers over the precious five years and discovered that the change in attendance per game between April and the entire season ranged from approximately 1.6 to 7.2 percent, not insignificant but reasonably manageable numbers.

Perhaps a more significant concern is that 2019, with 28,198 fans per game, marked a seventh consecutive season of declining attendance, although Edwards pointed out that “[a]ttendance is still well above where it was in the 1980s” and had grown “by 20% in the 15 years following the [1994-95] strike.…”

Also, more and more Americans are taking advantage of the proliferation of games on television and following along on their smartphones. Even fans who aren’t paying $17 and up to park their vehicles at chilly Coors Field in Denver may be content to remain inside and watch the idiot box or follow along on a smartphone. In an article late last year, Forbes’ Brown reported that Fox’s national broadcast ratings had increased by 2 percent over the previous season while the regional TV ratings stayed level overall.

I asked Dan Szymborski, the creator of the ZiPS player projection system and a senior writer for Fangraphs, what we should expect from fans when baseball finally resumes. It increasingly appears we’ll get something approximating a 81-game regular season as the 2020 best-case scenario. Who knows if and when fans will be permitted to cheer on their favorite teams in person?

Nonetheless, he’s upbeat: “[P]eople will likely be eager for anything that resembles a return to normalcy. The damage to the economy plus lingering COVID-19 worries will probably dampen attendance from what it could be, but television interest and general interest will likely be high.”

Szymborski may be right. But that’s then. What about now?

Vin Scully, arguably the greatest play-by-play man of all time, enjoyed greeting his television and radio audiences with an inviting, “Pull up a chair and spend part of your Saturday (or whatever the day was) with us.”

Today, we fans — hardcore and casual alike — will pull up a chair. But there will be no Max Scherzer. There will be no Jacob deGrom. Instead, we’ll sit dejected in our bathrobes and nightgowns, waiting for a season that may never come.

Happy Opening Day.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, a boutique public policy and consulting firm.

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