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Baseball growth slowed as it failed its fan base

By I.J. Rosenberg - For the AJC



When the first World Series came rolling through Atlanta in 1991, it was like a plague had paralyzed the city.

The workplace basically shut down, sleep was scarce, and like one of these recent Zombie movies, everyone walked around with their arm constantly extended and coming down in a chopping motion.

But I wonder if the World Series came back to our town today, and a game was played here on a Saturday, if many would rather be in Athens watching the Georgia Bulldogs.

For this baseball die-hard who covered almost 1,200 games in a six-year period, the sport, and its diamond series come October, has taken a tremendous beating.

It is far from our national pastime any more. The NFL has blown well past it, as well as college football here in the South, and baseball has only itself to blame.

There have been the battles with the union, the outrageous guaranteed salaries (Dan Uggla comes to mind), steroids, growth hormones and World Series games played so late into the night that not even us grownups can keep our eyes open.

Oh, I still love the sport, and in some cities, St. Louis and Boston being two of them, it is still No. 1.

But not that this wasn’t coming. For years, baseball ruled because it was played by almost every young boy, and many towns across America, whether it was New York or Durham, N.C., had a team. Radio spread the games to every nook and cranny, and heroes like Ruth, DiMaggio, Robinson and Aaron were our idols.

But while baseball tried to remain our national pastime, other sports began picking at it and have done a better job of marketing and running their businesses the right way.

Since the golden days of Mantle and Koufax, baseball has not had a star come close to the aura of Michael Jordan or LeBron James. And if you walk around any town America these days, you see football fans everywhere wearing NFL jerseys.

Could have this been prevented?

Absolutely. Not that baseball and the World Series would have ever dominated like they once did, but it is an example of a business that has failed to understand its customer. Baseball lost the African-American fan because it waited too long to address the fact that the African-American athlete was turning to other sports. It failed to keep the public trust by having no drug policy, getting dragged through the mud in the steroids era and not learning a lesson proved recently with the growth-hormone problem. But what has hurt it most is its uncompetitive balance because of the salary structure. You can’t be successful when the Yankees are allowed to spend $228 million and Houston has a payroll of $24 million.

Still, I love the sport. After I returned from the Falcons game two Mondays ago, I sat in my basement and listened to the end of the Braves game on ESPN radio.

And as many Braves fans, I cried when the game ended four minutes before 1 a.m.

Get my point?

I.J. Rosenberg covered the Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1991-96 and wrote three books on the team, including the best-seller “Miracle Season’’ after their worst-to-first finish in 1991.

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