As we close the books on the 2007 baseball season, there is, for Major League Baseball, good news and bad. The good news is that World Series television viewership was up from last year, with a 10.6 average game rating. The bad news is that this paltry rating is still the second lowest ever, barely squeaking by the 2006 Series’ anemic average of 10.1.
What are the reasons behind the apathy? Is it simply low interest in the teams who have played in the most recent fall classics? Doubtful when we consider that the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox, two of the game’s most historic and tradition-rich franchises, won these two most recent events. No, the decline is viewership is a symptom of a game fraught with big-time problems.
First is the complete collapse of integrity, both at the player and organizational levels. Cheating runs rampant in the game. We watch with indifference as the career home run record is broken by a man who doubled his chest size with performance enhancing drugs. We shrug it off when Sammy Sosa, another once revered home run slugger, shatters a corked bat mid-game. Players step into pitches, karate chop the arms of first basemen as they reach to catch routine throws, and regularly use their cleats in attempts to maul middle infielders in the middle of double plays. And when a player is lightly punished for clearly improper conduct, we see an immediate appeal by the Player’s Union, which is nothing more than a champion of the unrepentant, unprincipled Prima Dona player.
By far, the sorriest sign of the times is the rampant use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs by players who falsely deny ever touching the stuff. Rafael Palmeiro showed righteous indignation as he denied steroid use, under oath, to the United States Congress; months later, he tested positive for steroids. He then took a page out of Mr. Bonds’s playbook by converting his adamant denials into the laughable statement that he never “intentionally” used steroids.
Meanwhile, at the organizational level, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly turned a blind eye to this growing problem. When, in the middle of the great homerun race of 1998, a tube of performance enhancing substance was found in Mark McGwire’s locker, Selig shrugged it off, stating that he had heard no rumors of steroid use in baseball. Nine years later, he sat similarly tight lipped as Barry Bonds became baseball’s all-time homerun career leader under a whirlwind of controversy. To top it all off, we watched as Jose Canseco cashed in on the sordid culture by publishing a tell-all book on the subject. All of this makes the Pete Rose betting scandal seem almost cute by comparison.
Related to the collapse in integrity is the unabashed greed that has taken over the game. This evil hallmark of the game takes center stage every seven to ten years when the players go on strike, feeling that their multi-million dollar contracts are simply unfair for an eight month work year. While the strike years bring the problem to the forefront, it is always there, polluting the game. Just look at the arbitration system in place, where the only question is how much more a player will be paid in the coming season. Regardless of performance, players routinely demand higher salaries – and we are not talking cost of living increases here. Of course, for those players who do excel at the game, we see mind-boggling payouts. Witness Alex Rodriguez’s recent ten year $275 million package with the Yankees. It is because of this runaway freight train that ticket and concession prices prevent the average American family from attending a game without financial hardship.
Then there is the lack of loyalty. Remember the old days when a baseball player remained on one team for the majority, if not the entirety, of his career? Remember Pete Rose and Johnny Bench teaming together all of those seasons with the Big Red Machine? Or Jim Rice and Yaz with the Bosox? George Brett made a career in Kansas City, and Cal Ripken was loyal to Baltimore. Other big name players were traded, but only once, perhaps twice, over a career.
In today’s game, players could care less about what team they play for, so long as they are receiving the greatest amount of money they can find. We see players traded mid-season with regularity. It is not uncommon to see a player bounce all over the country in the course of an eight to ten year career. Just look at the frequency with which baseball’s wealthiest franchise, the New York Yankees, buys its players.
Baseball is in a world of hurt. And until these and other problems are addressed, the ratings will understandably continue to share space with the game’s integrity – in the cellar.