Ask any hardcore baseball fan how many home runs Hank Aaron hit in his career, or how about Babe Ruth, or even Willie Mays for that matter, and they’ll tell you 755, 714 and 660 without missing a beat. Ask a Reds fan how many hits it took Pete Rose to become the all-time hits king and 1,492 will roll off the tongue. Oakland fans can still see Rickey Henderson holding up second base after he passed Lou Brock with his 939th career stolen base.
In baseball more than any other sport, stats and milestones are synonymous with greatness. In an era where baseball has seen itself go from America’s pastime to an afterthought if football’s on TV, perhaps it’s time for an image adjustment. For far too long baseball has been more about the numbers on the back of the cards instead of the names on the front of them.
We live in a society where our lives are surrounded with instant gratification and ever-growing technologies. Our days are filled with Facebook, iPhones and Xbox. In other words, we are a people that live in the “now.” Baseball is not and has never been about the “now.”
Baseball is a game rooted in the traditions of the past. There’s even a series on the Fox Sports channel called “Baseball’s Golden Age.” The truth, however sad it might seem, is that kids no longer run to the sandlot on hot summer days to imitate the batting stances of their heroes. Why would they when they can sit in an air-conditioned house scoring touchdowns with their heroes on Madden?
Some might argue baseball is a slow, thinking man’s game that doesn’t fit in with the fast-paced world we live in. Football and basketball’s up-tempo entertaining style of play can more easily capture the attention of a youth that all seem to struggle with A.D.D. According to an article titled “Baseball cards and the current economy” by John Tammey on forbes.com, the baseball card market has fallen from $1.2 billion in 1991 to just $200 million today.
But is it really the game of baseball that’s the problem, or is it the way the game is viewed? Maybe Babe Ruth’s to blame for knocking out 714 career home runs all the way back in 1935, but ever since then baseball has been all about stats. The problem is stats are in the past. They make the game more focused on what Hank Aaron did than what Carlos Gonzales is doing. The real reason the game is falling out of favor with this generation is because kids today don’t want a history lesson … they want a hero.
Don’t get me wrong, I know baseball has a rich history and I believe it should be celebrated, but at what point does it become too much? There are people out there who as they read this will think I’m committing some kind of cardinal sin against the baseball gods, but it’s that kind of thinking that’s the problem. When we over obsess about the past and about stats, young viewers are turned off to an attractive game.
Think about it, baseball is the only sport where so-called statistical milestones are used as a benchmark to determine whether a player is good enough to make the hall of fame. If you hit 500 home runs, you’re in, if you get 3,000 hits, you’re in or if you’re a pitcher who wins 300 games, you’re in. If basketball and football had benchmarks like these, would Scottie Pippen’s 16.1 career points per game or Gale Sayers’ 4,956 career rushing yards have been enough to get them into their respective hall of fames?
Football and basketball seem to understand what baseball does not — you celebrate greatness when it’s in front of you, not when it’s in the rearview mirror. Sayers was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just six years after he retired and Pippen was a first ballot NBA hall of famer. In baseball, however, if your favorite players didn’t reach those benchmark stats needed in their careers to ensure a spot in the hall, you may have to wait years, even decades before they get in. That is, if they ever do. Take Fred McGriff for example, a career .284 hitter with a World Series ring, but just 493 career home runs. Uh oh, that’s seven short of the 500 home run benchmark needed to make the hall of fame. McGriff is still on the outside looking in at the hall, and why? Because of a measly seven home runs?
The unfortunate steroid era has only fueled baseball’s reaches back into the ghosts of its golden age. Arguments are started over statistical numbers and worthiness for the hall is questioned. Bonds’ career 762 homers don’t count, Hank Aaron never did steroids, he should remain on top with an honest 755. McGuire and Sosa can’t make the hall and be mentioned with the likes of Mays or Mantle. The whirlwind of banter created over the legitimacy of stats is nauseating.
It’s time for our pastime to stop living in the past. Football markets Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Basketball markets Kobe and Lebron. Baseball still markets Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Stats and history are important, but they’re not everything. I don’t watch a baseball game because only 20 players all-time have thrown a perfect game or because Cal Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games or because Cy Young won 511 career games … no, I watch a baseball game because I want to see Joey Votto hit a home run today — “now.”