If there’s anything in sports more encouraging than spending a day at the ballpark, watching baseball with 13,000 kids, I have no idea what it could be.
Tuesday, for me, came straight out of 1969.
It was a happy throwback.
The Salt Lake Bees took the field for their annual morning game, a game to which they invite elementary school students as a part of a sponsored drug-prevention awareness program. Outside Spring Mobile Ballpark were more than 80 school buses lined up in an adjacent parking lot like yellow pencils laid out in a drawer. Inside, the stands were packed with 5th- and 6th-graders, some of whom actually watched the game, a 4-1 Salt Lake win over Albuquerque.
Baseball, apparently, beat being in Mrs. Johnson’s math class.
Either way, add a bunch of youngsters to an early-season baseball game and the promise of tomorrow doesn’t get much brighter. Sort of. It brought back memories for me of going to a Phillies game at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia with a bunch of classmates when I was about the same age. Looking at the green expanse, splashed in warm sunshine, just like it was Tuesday at Spring Mobile, connected me to baseball in a manner that has lasted more than 2,000 Tuesdays since. I hoped the same for the kids at the Bees game.
Problem is, baseball is dying among a lot of kids.
And, to some extent, that’s baseball’s fault.
Giving a nod to TV, and advertisers, and big dollars, by scheduling World Series games late on school nights, so kids can’t watch those games is a shortsighted move. The Series should be the crowning moment of baseball, and to cut off the coming generation of sports fans from the opportunity of watching it is … stupid.
But the trouble is bigger than just that. Studies show that children are losing interest in baseball, in part because they are busy playing video games, riding skateboards and jumping into other more action-packed sports. A report in the Wall Street Journal last year stated that 11.5 million players of all ages did the baseball thing. That ranks fourth among the most popular team sports in the United States.
But over the past 20 years, the numbers of youths participating in Little League Baseball, which accounts for the majority of kids playing junior ball, have been dropping big time. Over the past decade, the total number of participating youths between the ages of 7 and 17 fell 24 percent, according to the report, which used statistics from the National Sporting Goods Association.
Meanwhile, participation rates for youth football, hockey, soccer and lacrosse are blowing through the roof.
There appears to be a trend among those who do play baseball of playing more and more of it, which suggests a move toward specialization. Kids who play baseball now are playing it in structured environments, many of them training year-round.
A question, then: When was the last time you saw a pickup baseball game going on at your local field? Ask anyone over 40. That used to happen all the time, kids choosing up sides among a group of friends, maybe closing right field if 18 kids couldn’t be rounded up, and whiling an afternoon away.
My friends and I used to crawl over the fence at Naamans Fields on Silverside Road. It looked like a scene out of the film “The Sandlot.” Now, if youngsters play ball, they play it in an organized way, under the supervision of coaches, trainers and parents.
Reasons for the decline are anecdotal.
Asking kids at Spring Mobile on Tuesday, many of them said baseball isn’t fast enough. They preferred basketball and football. Some said they didn’t like standing around in the outfield, waiting for a ball to be hit toward them, or waiting in the dugout, waiting for their chance to hit. A few admitted they were afraid of the ball.
“I don’t like baseball,” said Maceo DePasquale, a 9-year-old who attends Butler Elementary in Cottonwood Heights. “It’s boring.”
Asked what he does like, Maceo said, “Video games.”
That kills his dad, William, who not only is a huge Red Sox fan, but also played the game in high school. “I tried to tell him about it today, but he wasn’t really interested,” William said.
Maceo’s half-sister, 14-year-old Madeline Foster, said she likes the game and follows it, but … her brother? Forget about it.
“He said he would play a video baseball game,” she said. “And pretend the ball is a grenade.”
There is a ray of hope, though.
Waylon Talbot, a fifth-grader at Heber’s Timpanogos Intermediate, said he not only likes baseball, he plays it. He also plays football, but prefers Albert Pujols’ game.
“Baseball is more exciting,” he said. “I like hitting and playing outfield. Sometimes, I catch and pitch, too. It’s fun.”
Glory hallelujah, baseball’s not dead, yet.
GORDON MONSON hosts the “Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.