Big-League Slump


To usher in the baseball season, my son and I attended a Major League game, a Triple-A game and a Class-A game, allowing me to confirm several things that don't show up in the box scores.

First, with due respect to the American robin, baseball remains the best harbinger of spring. Second, with due respect to the Obama Administration and Congress, baseball remains one of the best barometers of the American Spirit and, this season, of the American economy.

In this spring of our economic discontent, many people are looking for low-cost, comforting forms of family entertainment - and there's no easier way to "Buy American" than to attend a baseball game. Yet, with every headline about corporate bailouts, lavish bonuses and private jets, Americans are losing patience with financial foolery on all levels. Professional baseball is insulated but not immune.

No sport can begin to equal the scope of pro baseball in America. The '09 season has already featured over 500 spring training games in Florida and Arizona - and the fact that attendance was down only slightly provides cause for cautious optimism. Now Major League teams are in the first month of the regular season that includes 2,430 games, for which last year over 78 million tickets were sold.

More remarkable as a measure of pro baseball's reach is that the affiliated minor league system will play over 10,000 games this summer. Last year 43 million tickets were sold - the fifth consecutive year of record-setting attendance in the minors. And those numbers don't even include more than a thousand games played by six independent pro leagues.

Many Major League clubs have responded to the economic slump by freezing ticket prices and shedding some player payroll expenses. The San Francisco Giants, for example, lost about 2,500 season ticket-holders and, like many other clubs, have seen corporate advertising dip. But things are worse in places like Milwaukee and Atlanta, where the Brewers and Braves are offering some seats for a dollar.

And then there are the Yankees and Mets, whose new taxpayer-assisted stadiums in New York are about as ill-timed as a new headquarters would be right now at General Motors. With its $1.3 billion construction cost and record price for a single game seat of $2,625, the new Yankee Stadium is not only a monument to a legendary sports franchise, but also a monument to bad taste.

The Mets, whose $800 million park is a shack by comparison, had the misfortune to take $400 million for naming rights from Citigroup, meaning that Citi Field could soon be known as Bailout Ballpark.

You've got to laugh at owners who wisely reject such things as artificial turf because they spoil the purity of the game, then foolishly add garish touches like the new Yankee Stadium's 1,000 video screens, and underground parking for players so they never have to cross paths with the public.

Baseball fans may not recognize bad mortgage deals, but they'll have no trouble spotting Major League owners who are out of touch with the times. Attendance could fall by as much as 10 percent this season, even as minor league attendance continues to rise.

Long before the economy collapsed, fans were discovering the simple pleasures and modest prices offered by minor league ball. Much as restaurants like McDonald's seem to be benefiting from hard times, minor league baseball may be recession-proof. For about what it costs to park your car at a Major League park, two people can buy tickets at most minor league venues and have enough left over for hot dogs and peanuts.

Of course, a bargain-priced bad time is no bargain at all, but in the minor leagues that's rarely the case. Smaller ballparks bring fans closer to the action. Reasonably-priced tickets attract more families to games, usually creating a more pleasant atmosphere. And most players, not yet spoiled by such things as the Twitter-ready computers mounted at every locker in the new Yankee Stadium clubhouse, seem to play hard, have fun, and appreciate the game on its most basic level.

The biggest difference between minor leaguers and their big league counterparts is that while they may all be in it for multi-million dollar contracts, at least minor leaguers play as if they have to work to earn it. Some Major League players and owners seem too much like Wall Street tycoons, waiting to collect big bonuses even if they happen to strike out.

Americans won't reject baseball this summer, they'll cling to it. But baseball consumers are also savvy enough to avoid getting taken, out at the old ball game.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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