World Series has lost its fastball

Posted: October 21, 2013

Last week I traveled to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where a cousin was recuperating from a brain aneurysm.

Before seeing her, I needed to drop off an equally sick computer at The Inquirer.

Walking down Cherry Street, I turned left on Broad and headed north. It wasn't until I stood virtually beneath the iconic white tower that I remembered The Inquirer didn't live there anymore.

And my cousin was the one with the brain trauma.

Memories die slowly and painfully.

Take the World Series.

Each autumn, my mind makes that turn toward the Fall Classic. I head there instinctively, convinced it still occupies the familiar spot where it resided, unchallenged in all of sports through the first half of my life.

Subconsciously, of course, I'm recalling the Series as it was in the 1950s and 1960s: the universal interest every game, every pitch generated. The transistor radios we smuggled into school. Mel Allen's drawl. Gillette's jingle. Those dramatic afternoon shadows at Yankee Stadium.

Each year, though, I'm rudely reminded that, much like the Inquirer tower, the World Series stands as a curious relic from another era.

It used to be a national obsession. Now it's just a tale of two cities.

There's still plenty of interest if you happen to share a zip code with one of the participating teams. Who in Philadelphia, for example, will soon forget that red-hued autumn of 2008?

But for the rest of the nation, satiated with sports and entertainment options, the Fallen Classic is just another wave in an unending tide.

The Super Bowl. Ultimate Fighting. The NBA Finals. X-Games. The World Cup. The U.S. Open. Wimbledon. The World Series. They all roll past a numbed public on TV's conveyor belt.

There's little that makes the World Series unique.

Conceivably, with the right MLB package, you could watch all 2,430 regular-season games. You could watch batting practice on the MLB Network, an endless loop of highlights on ESPN, pregame and postgame shows, morning and late-night wrap-ups.

Suddenly those seven additional games in October, none of which ever seem to end before midnight in the East, seem pretty mundane.

Some suggest shortening the season. That, given the sport's mania for tradition and statistics, would be foolhardy. But by playing virtually every night for six months, baseball will never match the anticipatory fervor the NFL can create with just 16 games.

That's why a bad Monday Night Football game - isn't that redundant? - often attracts twice as many TV viewers as a World Series matchup.

The highest-rated Series game of the last decade (Game 7 in 2011) scored a 14.7 rating. The 2012 World Series averaged a 7.6. By comparison, a Week 7 Sunday night football telecast last October drew an 18.65.

Baseball wisely has given up trying to compare its championship to the Super Bowl. It's a futile exercise, like trying to compare Connie Mack's Q Score to a Kardashian's. The Super Bowl is a happening. The World Series just happens.

And it's not just TV viewers disrespecting the World Series.

In 2001, despite an incredible ending to Game 4 of the Yankees-Diamondbacks Series, Comcast SportsNet's morning wrap-up led with the previous night's Flyers game.

I was shocked then. Now I wouldn't blink an eye.

There are a million reasons the World Series has been supplanted as our favorite sporting event: Baseball's overexposure. Longer games. Shorter attention spans. The NFL's marketing genius. And too many fans whose highlight mentalities can't grasp the game's subtleties or pace.

Baseball isn't helping itself.

Some of its traditional allure - the charm of a quiet afternoon at the ballpark, or a spittle-spewing, dust-raising argument between manager and umpire - is disappearing or being legislated out of the game.

Still, the decline in Series viewership can't be blamed entirely on a broader dissatisfaction with baseball.

The sport's regular-season attendance figures continue to increase annually even as World Series ratings decline. That's the converse of how things used to happen.

Back when nearly everybody followed the Series, regular-season baseball didn't draw flies.

Baseball attendance in 1935, for example, was 6,889,232. In 2013, the Dodgers and Cardinals alone topped that total. And this season's average crowd was 21/2 times larger than those in 1951, the year Bobby Thomson hit his famous homer and the sport's popularity seemed to be at a peak.

And yet, starting this week, ratings for the World Series, now facing NFL competition on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, could approach all-time lows.

That day I visited my cousin, I eventually got my ailing computer to The Inquirer. It's located on Market Street now, in what used to be the women's department at Strawbridge & Clothier.

My grandmother might have bought a frock there. To do so, she might have had to wade through the throngs that in those pre-radio days assembled outside a nearby newspaper's offices to await World Series updates.

That newspaper was The Inquirer, which before relocating to the Broad Street tower in 1925 was at 1109 Market St.

The Inquirer has survived. So will the World Series.

But no matter how much we baby boomers might whine and pine, neither is ever going to be the same. Then again, neither are we.

We'll tune in Wednesday night to see the ballpark draped in bunting, to hear the roar at anthem's end, to savor the historical footnotes.

And by the third inning, we'll be asleep, dreaming of shadows in the Bronx.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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