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Baseball's stormy forecast

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Baseball has become a game of strikeouts, walks, home runs, and not much else -- and fans have to sit there longer and longer to see less happening.


Once the tumult and the shouting of the Super Bowl has died down our thoughts traditionally turn to the grand old game, the national pastime, or, as Babe Ruth called it, "the greatest game of all, baseball." Equipment trucks start rolling from frigid cities of the north to the warm climes of spring training; pitchers and catchers get ready to report, with position players not far behind. Owners and managers alike are filled with optimism about the campaign that lies ahead. Soon, the baseball season will be upon us. It's a time of renewal, when all things seem possible. Spring is on the way.

So, how come I'm not as excited about it as in years gone by?

It's true that the realistic prospects for my team, the Red Sox, are not very lofty this year, but the Sox have suffered through many other ugly seasons, and I have remained steadfast in my devotion to them.

It's also true that I'm still grieving over the loss of Mookie, but I'll get over it -- eventually. After all, it took a long healing process but I recovered from the Sox not bothering to send a contract to Carlton Fisk in 1980 and their letting Roger Clemens walk away in 1997. The Red Sox have given me plenty of reasons to be upset over the years, but my allegiance to them has never flagged.

My problem is not so much with the Red Sox as with the game itself. I have lived through lengthy work stoppages and even the cancellation of the World Series one year; I've seen the owners caught colluding against the players and the players caught taking steroids like candy and I have always believed the adage that no matter what either side does, they can't ruin the game of baseball; tarnish it, maybe, but not ruin it.

That is, until now. I think they might finally have hit on the perfect formula to kill baseball. They're trying to bore us to death.

Baseball has become a game of strikeouts, walks, home runs, and not much else -- and fans have to sit there longer and longer to see less happening. This is not something that has happened overnight; it is something which has happened gradually over the years. Now, however, it seems to be reaching critical mass. Strike outs now exceed base hits. Home runs have become so commonplace that they're losing their allure.

Baseball has committed the worst of all sins. It's become somewhat dull, at least by today's standards.

The game needs a makeover. Attendance has been falling steadily in recent years. Television ratings are down. Kids don't seem to care about it nearly as much as in years gone by. It has slipped well behind both football and basketball in national appeal.

It's not in danger of dying, at least not in our lifetimes, but it is in grave danger of falling even farther behind the other big-time sports.

There was a time, not all that many years ago, when newspapers dutifully covered the results of all the horse races in their area. No more. When was the last time you saw a newspaper story on horse racing that wasn't about the Triple Crown?

Rocky Marciano was a household name around these parts for several years before he won the heavyweight championship because the sports pages back then covered boxing. Once Rocky did win the title he became the most famous athlete in the world, just as were Joe Louis before him and Muhammad Ali after. Quick -- can you name the current heavyweight champion? I didn't think so. Neither can I.

Times change, and it's a mistake to think that baseball could never suffer the same fate as boxing and horse racing -- they're still around, but nowhere near as prominent as they used to be.

Did you watch the World Series on TV last fall? Maybe you didn't. After all, the ratings were the lowest in history, and the World Series has been televised since 1947. That's not a good sign.

Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are baseball's biggest stars of today, but they don't possess anywhere near the wattage of, say, Tom Brady or LeBron James. I can remember when to be a baseball star meant you were among the biggest celebrities in America. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were more well-known than even the biggest movie stars. Today, even Peyton Manning has more star power than Mookie or Trout, and he hasn't even played for five years.

Mookie used to play for the Sox, you know. They traded him away last year, in case you hadn't heard. As a business decision it made good sense, but as a baseball decision it was a disaster. Getting rid of the most exciting player in the game just as he's reaching his prime might be a good accounting move, but baseball isn't math class. At least it didn't use to be.

Is this the old fogy in me coming out? Have I turned into just another old crank? Am I one of those guys who is always complaining about "these kids today?"

God help me, I hope not. Still, I see storm clouds on the horizon. The only issue on which the owners and the players association seem to agree is that they can't agree on anything, even on how many games they should play.

People who know about such things are predicting another protracted work stoppage at the end of this season. Maybe the players will go out on strike against management, or maybe management will lock the players out. Who cares? Either way it would be a train wreck.

Maybe they'll get their act together and maybe, once the games begin, I'll get caught up in them, just like I have every other year. Maybe I'll wake up mornings wondering things like: how the Sox did last night; or, who's on the mound tonight?

I hope so.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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