This morning, our own Dan Levy took a shot at figuring out why baseball isn't as popular as it used to be. The main reason he landed on was a lack of steroids, or at least steroid talk.
No offense to Dan, it's as good a theory as any, but that's a very sportswriter-y way of thinking. It's the same reason the media is way more fascinated right now with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens than actual fans are. It's a storyline, an extra angle to take, which we as writers hone in on. But fans have moved on.
It's not about the steroids, it's about the records and the stars. Baseball was at the height of it's popularity when Mark McGwire (a cartoonishly big guy who celebrated home runs by bashing forearms) and Sammy Sosa (the lovable, smiling, "bezball been berry berry good to me" guy) were battling for baseball's most cherished single-season record.
We didn't care because they might have been juicing. We actually turned a blind eye and tried to make up reasons why they weren't juicing. We just wanted to see a sexy record felled by larger than life superstars.
You think if Jose Bautista was on pace to break 70 home runs that we'd be like "well, it's not as interesting because we know he's not on steroids?" That would captivate our imagination in a second, and even then we'd probably still be speculating.
The problem is that he won't do that. Nobody will. The problem isn't that we don't have steroids any more, it's that the fact that we had steroids at all screwed us. Now the record we most care about is completely out of reach. Oh, you hit 54 home runs, Jose? Yawn. Hit 17 more and give us a call.
In a way, that's where Dan is most right. The only way we're really going to care about baseball again is if guys start juicing. Not so we'll talk about it, but so they can actually get back to the impossibly high standard that steroids helped set.
Look at the one time baseball actually mattered this year: Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit, something Levy points out. Was it a really important stat in the grand scheme of things? No, but it was a really familiar milestone to everyone and it involved baseball's most recognizable name. That's about as good as it gets now.
There's a reason Thome's 600th homer didn't even register. We don't care about him and we don't really have anything invested in 600 home runs.
I'm painting with broad strokes here, because there's so much wrong with baseball besides this whole issue. But let's face facts, there's a reason it went from being America's pastime to a distant fourth behind the NFL, college football and the NBA.
Look, times are a-changin'. It's an ADD culture now. If I go 30 minutes without checking Twitter I start getting the shakes. You think I'm going to want to sit through another six hour Yankees-Red Sox game? Thanks, but no thanks.
It's only getting worse with kids. Try explaining the infield fly rule to them without them retreating to their PSP. Baseball is slow moving and intricate in so many ways. The only problem is, we as a culture are not slow moving any more, and we're demanding that our sports keep up.
And 162 games? It's getting harder and harder to hold our attention for that long. That's twice as long as the NBA season and 150 times longer than the NFL season (you'll have to check my math there). I know, it's worked for a hundred years, but you have to really take a hard look at this sort of stuff when you see such a dramatic drop off in popularity.
It doesn't help that Major League Baseball and Bud Selig are going into the 21st century kicking and screaming. They immediately kill every YouTube clip as soon as it pops up. That means when you're watching the game you can go "hey check out this catch" or "hey check out this fan fall on his ass trying to catch a foul ball" on Twitter without having to wait for MLB.com to get the video up.
When Bryce Harper comes along and starts blowing up the scene, people will tune in again. We want a reason to care about baseball again. We don't really care about steroids, we just want to see something great, and baseball, right now, is not great.
That's just scratching the surface of what's wrong with baseball right now. At least the pitching is as good as it's been in a long time with the Phillies' staff and Strasburg leading the way.
So I guess you could say baseball's got 99 problems but a pitch ain't one. (I'm so sorry)