Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Baseball: Suburbia's National Pastime

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 11:44 AM

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I'd take Barack Obama in a pickup basketball game, based on his shoot-around with Clark Kellogg to hype the Final Four. But I'd pass on him if choosing sides in a pickup baseball game, based on his high-and-wide ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals' opener Monday. At least he got it to the plate.

More evidence that basketball and football have better claims than baseball on being the national pastime. Unless you are white and live in the suburbs or small towns, that is.

Baseball's popularity is fading, sort of. It's a minor sport in Memphis high schools, where the best male athletes play football and basketball. To my knowledge, exactly one MCS graduate has played SEC baseball in the last 20 years, while hundreds have gone on to play SEC football and basketball. I know because I raised him. When city schools play county schools, the slaughter rule is usually invoked after three innings.

But in the suburbs, boys are playing baseball and girls are playing softball at a high level. Lots of them go on to play in college, where the season runs from February to June and the best teams are getting regular coverage on programming-starved ESPN.

There are lighted baseball and softball complexes in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Cordova (First Horizon Fields); DeSoto County (Snowden Grove); Jackson, Tennessee (Pringles Park); Jonesboro, Arkansas, and New Albany, Mississippi, among other places. Somebody's playing. But it would probably be a mistake to put a baseball complex at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, given the lack of interest in the inner-city.

College baseball is hot in places like Oxford and Starkville, where crowds of 5000 or more are not uncommon. The University of Memphis hopes to tap into this with an improved stadium and more marketing.

Major-league baseball, thanks to the infusion of foreign-born players, is thriving in many markets. The best teams still draw two million or more fans a year, and baseball provides near-infinite amounts of television programming. The eight-figure salaries of the best players are staggering. But a $100-million catcher for the Minnesota Twins does not a national pastime make. Quick, name him.

Minor-league baseball will always be a struggle, for obvious reasons — meaningless games, no-name players, etc. Dean and Kristi Jernigan did an amazing thing with AutoZone Park, but the novelty of the best minor-league park in America has faded after ten years. The people who said a suburban stadium would have drawn better might be right. It certainly would have been closer to the market.

It's a great sport to watch if your kid or neighbor's kid is playing, preferably pitcher, catcher or shortstop, but damnably slow otherwise.

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