For openers, emotions swirl 

click to enlarge San Francisco Giants
  • Eric Risberg/ap file photo
  • While the Giants are one of the model franchises, MLB has other issues that are slowly building up and ready to burst.
So here we have an Opening Day of hope, sadness, fear, the return of MadBum, all those reverberant human elements that make Opening Day unique. That is, unless you are like me and wonder why we call it Opening Day when the baseball season actually opened Sunday night, and that while ESPN differentiates by calling that Opening Night, it can’t be Opening Night when the sun didn’t set in Chicago until after the first pitch.

Here in San Francisco, folks are too filled with emotion to worry about frivolity. The Giants open the season in Arizona amid the passing of Lon Simmons, their baritone storyteller, and a monster trade that may have ended their season before it started. Suddenly formidable after years of deep-sleeping, the San Diego Padres have acquired all-world closer Craig Kimbrel and the Upton Formerly Known As B.J., Melvin Upton Jr., from Atlanta. Add them to James Shields and Matt Kemp and Wil Myers, and ... Does a garlic fry still taste good in third place?

As Giants fans ponder another odd-numbered year, America takes a wider look at baseball. As in, where is this sport headed? If somehow we could blend the quirky adorability of Hunter Pence, the progressive intellect of Billy Beane, the crewcuttish exuberance of Mike Trout, the hot girlfriend of Justin Verlander, the feral abandon of Madison Bumgarner, the marketing clout of Jay Z, the public touch of Derek Jeter, the pray-he’s-clean biceps of Giancarlo Stanton, the common sense of Tesla, the efficiency of Uber and whatever tethers us to smartphones 24/7 — and then poured it all into a lab project — maybe Major League Baseball still would be our national pastime.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is thriving in some precincts as if no other activity exists on Earth — such as at AT&T Park, on the plot of land that disarms and dazzles me even after dozens of trips. I took a spin around the yard the other night. Every seat was sold. Fans of all ages were thrilled to be there, including 18-to-34s said to be bored with an old, stale sport. The pizza in center field was scrumptious, though I felt guilty when I walked past the garden — any weed in there, Timmy? — and the healthy-food stands. Vitality and wealth oozed from every brick, every vista, every swanky restaurant and grass-fed sausage stand.

“It felt good, really good, to be back in this energy, back in front of the crowd,” said Giants pitcher Matt Cain, who had been returning gingerly from elbow surgery but, jazzed by the familiar atmosphere, produced four scoreless innings of hope.

Yet don’t confuse baseball prosperity in San Francisco — or that in Los Angeles and Orange County, Boston and New York, St. Louis and Detroit — with fair-to-middling-to-miserable situations in other places. Just head across the Bay Bridge to the (Whatever They’re Calling It) Coliseum, where the ballclub is a hoot but the pit is gloomy, with no progress in sight. A’s owner Lew Wolff was stonewalled politically by his Wisconsin frat brother, Bud Selig, while new Commissioner Rob Manfred has all but ordered Wolff to figure something out in Oakland or sell. Look, too, at six other franchises that failed to draw 2 million fans last season. Look at the average age of a World Series viewer — 54.4 years, up from 49.4 five years ago, which means shrinking national-TV audiences have grown old with the game itself.

Sure, you watched the Series in droves around here, millenials included. But the rest of America, except for assorted Kansas City ZIP codes, had zero interest. The rest of America doesn’t care about the postseason unless its own ballclub is involved, and, unlike the NFL, where the gambling-mad, fantasy-silly masses have interest in the entire league, baseball popularity in most places is about having a nice destination to take the kids or drink a beer on a summer afternoon. It is a regional sport, nothing more, and it has fallen behind pro football, college football and the NBA in any honest appraisal of what sports fans generally care about in America.

We wouldn’t know it here in the bosom of the Champs, where the death of Simmons reminds us of the Giants’ generational pull, from the Polo Grounds to China Basin. But baseball has been stumbling down a lonesome, irrelevant road for a while now. Once our leading sport, it has drifted into a secondary place in American culture, dragged down by dawdling days and nights that need more than a between-innings countdown clock, and burned out by PED scandals enabled by complicit owners. How funny to see baseball, forced into an elaborate drug-testing era by Congress, now stuck in a crisis of run-scoring impotence. I love watching Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw as much as anyone, but I’d also like a balance between pitching dominance and the “Chicks dig the long ball” power frenzies of the Steroids Era. The New York Times rolled out the sobering numbers: Last season, 5,000 fewer runs were scored and roughly 1,500 fewer home runs were hit than in the Barry Bonds-Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa apex of 2000, and pitchers struck out about 6,000 more batters.

Sorry, you have to put wood on the ball to keep most people interested. Otherwise, you’re paying big money to watch a flyswatting exhibition, swings at dead air.

The men running the sport disagree, of course, saying they have no better evidence of baseball’s well-being than the megamillions in their vaults. But the sport’s current economic prosperity is a matter of sheer luck: In the DVR age, television operators desperately need live content to counter the on-demand, skip-over-commercials crowd, and Major League Baseball delivers live programming 162 times a year in 30 markets. So the networks and cable shops pay outrageous amounts — none more staggering than Time Warner Cable’s $8.35 billion, 25-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers — because no one wants to DVR a sports event that only can be enjoyed live.

The windfall has given the owners a false sense of security as Selig departs, at long last. They think the game is fine when, in truth, the coveted demographic groups are immersed in football and hoops. Baseball has been blessed with exceptional young talent on the field, yet one of the biggest indictments of the Selig regime is a lack of national endorsement power for Trout (the most complete player in the game at 23), Kershaw (the best regular-season pitcher in the game at 27) and Bumgarner (the most mesmerizing October pitching performance ever at 25). Why isn’t Buster Posey doing a regular-rotation ad or two, even if he isn’t into self-promotion?

Oh, maybe because the now-former commissioner never learned how to send an email. And the men who chose his successor don’t know Jay Z from Jay Johnstone while assuming Uber is an Irish rock group fronted by Sonny Bono.

The owners are so busy talking about how much money they’ve made, they’re missing out on the gradual death of their sport. If the Giants have meshed on-field success with mass popularity — the franchise is worth $2 billion — the Manfred administration may want tap into the formula. No one at AT&T complains about long, slow games because people are having too much fun. No one complains about the lack of a 30-homer hitter, after those grotesque Bonds seasons because the Giants have figured out how to win championships the smart way when they couldn’t win a title in the Bloated Barry years.

At least Manfred is addressing slow games with a clock, though it might shave only a few minutes off the average game, and by mandating hitters keep at least a foot in the batter’s box. But I’m afraid baseball is too far gone in some markets to recover. If teams haven’t developed a young fan base by now, when will they? Apple has moved up to the iPhone 6 Plus, right? Video games still rock, too.

The game may become a little faster on the field, but as MLB adopts stronger security measures, expect lengthy waits at the gates. At AT&T on Friday night, lines were still 10-deep along King Street in the second inning. At the Coliseum, they were longer Saturday. With all the revenues this sport is generating, couldn’t they have provided more metal detectors to move the lines faster?

There just seems to be a pervading smugness to it all. The profits are unprecedented — baseball is now a $9-billion-a-year sport — and the owners don’t seem to care about much else. Well, fortunately in San Francisco, the Giants do care.

About you.

And my guess is, they’re not going to stand pat and be trumped by anything from San Diego.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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