Friday, April 27, 2012

Passed Time

by David Wharton,
Los Angeles Times
June 19, 2011

Some observers look at how they believe the sport has lost its luster and offer ideas on how to jazz it up.
Ebbet's Field - Brooklyn New York
A big part of Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" deals with bygone years when the sport truly ranked as America's favorite pastime.

Baseball towered over rivals such as college football and boxing in that golden age, and had yet to feel a pinch from the upstart pro football and pro basketball leagues.

That isn't the case anymore. Burns, who grew up playing Pony League in Delaware, has watched an increasingly fast-paced, high-tech culture rush past his languid game.

"We are living in … a world where everything is reduced to a tweet, where everyone is on their cellphones all the time," he said. "We see that baseball requires our attention."

As the season stretches on, so does the annual debate over whether the sport needs another update, something beyond interleague play and the designated hitter. The Times turned to an array of voices — creative minds, lifelong fans, all of them watching from outside the major leagues.

Their recommendations ranged from predictable to far outside the batter's box.

"The game has to be more accessible to a wider variety of people," said Peter Pucci, an award-winning choreographer whose work has incorporated baseball along with other athletic themes. "I think the owners are missing the boat."

Go short

Home runs do not entirely satisfy Bob Jacobsen. He would rather watch singles and doubles and runners trying to steal.

"When someone hits a home run, that's a wonderful 10 seconds," he said. "But you can cheer for 10 minutes while they try to figure out how to get a guy home from second."

The University of California physics professor thinks he has the science to encourage more of this action: Shorten the base paths, move the pitcher's mound back 15 feet and widen the foul lines roughly 10 degrees.

Jacobsen can guess what purists would think of his suggestion.

"They would hate it," he said.

But with more room for grounders and line drives to sneak past infielders, he envisions a game of speed and strategy where managers — and fans in the bleachers — ponder when to steal or call for the hit and run. There would be more chances for what Hank Aaron called baseball's most exciting play, the triple.

Stadiums would have to be reconfigured, home plate shifted closer to the fences. The major leagues might have to switch to a ball whose weight and hardness caused it to leave the bat faster, yet travel shorter distances.

"I go to A's games and I'm not seeing as many people in the stands as I used to," the professor said. "If you want to get more people to follow baseball, it probably has to change."

Get crazy

Who remembers when Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns, sent 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951?

Ron Shelton does. The "Bull Durham" director worries that baseball has lost the sense of showmanship and innovation that marked its early days.

"When was the last time a major league team had a promotion that made you smile?" he said. "That's all been lost with the big money, the big stadiums."

Veeck was an unpredictable entertainer, hiring Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," to perform between innings and holding a "Disco Demolition Night" that started a riot at Chicago's old Comiskey Park.

His legacy endures in minor league ballparks across the nation, the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears presenting a monkey riding a dog and the Brooklyn Cyclones holding "Bellies & Baseball," with a Lamaze class in center field and lifetime season tickets to any woman giving birth during the game.

With its endless parade of bobblehead and rally towel nights, Shelton says the big league game "is being marketed all wrong."

Pucci, the choreographer, has a similar thought. Each summer, he takes his family to Cape Cod League amateur games where they can sit close to the action and kids run the bases afterward.

He wonders if the major leagues can recapture some of that intimacy.

"The game has become so corporate," he said. "It has lost its innocence."

Star power

As a regular on "Desperate Housewives" — he plays the character Mike Delfino — James Denton understands the value of star power. As a part-owner of the Orange County Flyers minor league franchise, he knows something about the business of trying to attract fans.

"Play to your strengths," he said.

For baseball, that means tradition. Denton thinks the game should return to fewer teams in the playoffs and, more important, dumping the unbalanced schedule that tilts so heavily toward division opponents.

It makes no sense to him that premier National League teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves come through Dodger Stadium only once a season.

In other words, as a season-ticket holder, he wants to see more Albert Pujols, less Xavier Nady.

"You can only watch the Diamondbacks and the Rockies so many times," he said. "That has hurt the sport."

Keep moving

The prospect of altering baseball takes Charles Fazzino in different directions.

The pop artist, whose hand-painted batting helmets have been displayed at recent All-Star games, recalls growing up in the Bronx and going to Yankee Stadium.

"The smell of hot dogs, the beautiful green field," he said. "You have a lot of time to sit there and experience everything."

But such restful memories butt up against what he sees now. A generation of kids raised on multitasking. More and more people leaving games before the ninth inning.

"If I would change anything, it would be the stops and starts," he said. "We're in a society where we want things to move a little faster."

Keeping pitchers on a tighter clock might help. Shelton weighs in on this issue, too, suggesting that umpires limit the number of times a batter can step out of the box between pitches.

Still, the director muses, "it's not a made-for-television sport."

Get over it

Change does not come easily to a game that holds tradition, its myriad rules and records, so dear. All of the people interviewed for this story had mixed emotions about tinkering.

"If you try to make it attractive to more people," Denton said, "maybe it's not good for anybody."

And maybe that explains Burns' response to the perennial handwringing over baseball.

"Try to get all the people who say they are bored and the commentators who complain and just get them to leave the country," he said. "This is the greatest game ever invented."

The filmmaker notices empty fields when driving past schoolyards and parks, but they make him worry more about our culture than his beloved sport.

"We see baseball as a precise mirror, good and bad, for everything we are," he said. "We ask these questions about baseball, we're really lamenting what has become of us.

The six panelists interviewed by The Times about their views on a possible future for baseball:

Burns is an Academy Award-nominated director whose documentary films include "Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Civil War." He loves baseball because it is the only sport with irregular fields, the only sport where the defense has the ball and "it's not on ice."
Shelton has written and directed a number of sports-related films, including "Bull Durham," "Tin Cup" and "White Men Can't Jump." He considers the late major league owner Bill Veeck "a genius."

Fazzino's 3-D pop art is exhibited in hundreds of galleries internationally, including the Art One Gallery in Santa Monica. He has turned baseballs, football helmets and tennis racquets into colorful artwork.

Pucci's "Pucci:Sport" incorporates movement from baseball, surfing, basketball and other sports. This summer, the former third baseman will participate in the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine.

Jacobsen is a physics professor at the University of California Berkeley. He grew up in New York City as a Mets fan and believes the designated hitter "does some violence to the game."

Denton calls himself "a seam head" and, in addition to owning part of the Orange County Flyers team, has run a fantasy baseball league for 25 years. His acting credits include "Desperate Housewives," "JAG" and "The West Wing."

-- David Wharton

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