Saturday, October 13, 2012

Abnormal Baseball

It's not 1967 anymore. It's not 1965, either -- but I'm wondering what's next.

Back in 1965, the Red Sox averaged merely 8,052 fans per game at Fenway. If you're a Sox fan under 40, I don't think you've ever seen Fenway have less than 20,000 people in it. But in the middle of the 1960s, the Sox hadn't won a pennant since 1946 and, well, baseball was dying in this town. The fact that Boston was two team town was still a recent memory, with the Braves leaving for Milwaukee in 1953. The Boston Braves' glory days had long since passed them by -- they won 8 pennants from 1877 - 1898, but after that they earned merely two more pennants (1914, 1948) before skipping town.

For the Red Sox part, the last World Series title they won was in 1918. After that series, they sold their star left handed pitcher to the Yankees. That pitcher was, of course, Babe Ruth. Since the era of Cy Young a couple decades earlier -- where those pitchers had fastballs so powerful that they prompted professional baseball to move the pitchers mound farther away from the plate -- nobody did more than Babe Ruth to fundamentally change the way baseball is played.  We're still watching the Babe's game today.

Before the Babe, scoring runs in baseball was all about playing small ball. But in the Babe's first season as a Yankee in 1920, converted to play in the outfield so he could have more at-bats, he hit an unheard of 54 homeruns. In 1921, in upped his game and hit 59 homers. Running in tandem with the beginning of the post-war Roaring 20s, Babe Ruth practically defined the era of prosperity in American history by creating the the most apt metaphor for America's explosive economic growth and its increasing presence as a global power, stepping out of the shadows of old, tired European empires.  America, in short, was hitting homeruns every time it stepped to the plate.

Imagine if Babe Ruth did all of this in Boston...

As for baseball in Boston in the post-Babe era, it included Ted Williams and the Red Sox pennant in 1946; and the Braves pennant in 1948. But both Boston teams lacked success in the 1950s, Ted Williams retired in 1960, and by 1965, perhaps Boston fans lost interest in seeing one losing team after the torture of seeing two competing losers. Baseball in Boston, down to one team, was able to muster an average of merely 8,000 fans into the stands per game. For all intents and purposes, Boston was the modern day equivalent of Kansas City in professional baseball.

Then, 1967 happened. I trust that I don't need to expound upon that magical season -- needless to say, it saved baseball in Boston.

Fast forward to 2012. The Red Sox have won two World Series titles in the past decade, and enjoyed a period of success that's only been paralleled by teams like the Yankees. Young Red Sox fans cannot remember a time when their team perpetually sucked. They cannot fathom Fenway having under 30,000 cheering fans at any point in time. They can't imagine Fenway having just 13,414 fans in attendance in 1986 when Roger Clemens -- who looked like the best fucking pitcher in fucking history at the time (with a brief argument from Doc Gooden) -- struck out twenty Seattle Marines batters, setting a major league record for total strikeouts in nine innings that still hasn't been broken. Unlike Verlander, who stole the MVP honor from Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011, Clemens deserved to win the MVP award in 1986 after his 24 wins led the Red Sox to their first World Series berth since 1975.

After that, the Red Sox weren't that great until they signed Pedro Martinez in 1998 and Manny Ramirez in 2001. Since then, the Red Sox have been a perennial playoff contender and the average attendance in Fenway Park hasn't dipped below 30,000 fans per game since 1999.

This is not normal.

The Cincinnati Reds -- the oldest team in professional baseball -- haven't had an average of above 30,000 fans per game since 2000. And that's after they got a new stadium. The Detroit Tigers, another traditional team, only started averaging 30,000+ fans per game in 2006 -- before then, the last time they had an average of 30,000+ fans per game was 1984. That's the last time they won the World Series.  There's nothing wrong with this -- in fact, the Reds and Tigers have pretty normal attendance numbers for normal baseball teams that experience their ups and downs.

But Boston, after being saved in 1967, became a blessed baseball city since 1999. The Yankees have experienced the kind of success in attendance that the Red Sox have since 1999, but beyond them... Nobody has. No other teams have enjoyed the financial success that the modern Red Sox and Yankees have. And because of this, we've become spoiled fans -- we don't remember what it's like to, well, suck.

Then we come to 2012. After 13 years of dominance, recognized by Boston sports fans opening their fat wallets to buy tickets for Fenway, the 2012 Boston Red Sox sucked. And no matter how many times the Red Sox front office sent tickets to charity organizations to claim that they have sold out Fenway Park for a record number of consecutive games, everyone knows that people weren't going to games towards the end of the season. Nobody cared. And that's the first time we could say such for baseball in this city in a while.

Is this normal or abnormal?

Here's the current situation: Boston could become a "normal" baseball city again. It's possible -- look at the history of baseball in Boston that I detailed, and look at attendance numbers in other cities. But even with a slight dip of revenues, the Red Sox are no longer in a prime big market position to sign the best players because TV contract money has enriched more teams. The Reds signed Joey Votto to a $200+ million deal at the hint of getting a new TV deal. The Dodgers just took on Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford's contracts in order to get Adrian Gonzalez playing first base for them -- and across town, the Angels have Albert Pujols at first. That's around $50 million per year in one city for two teams to pay two first basemen. One position. Still think Boston is the biggest fish in the sea of big market baseball teams?

While the revenue of other teams grows because of TV contract money, the Red Sox own NESN and Fenway -- they're still tied into a revenue stream that could become less profitable while the revenue stream of other teams grows.  To stem the decrease of revenues, the Red Sox must pretend to be contenders in 2013 -- despite the fact that quality free agents just aren't out there to sign that would let them compete.

But if the Red Sox don't compete in 2013, then Boston could revert back to being a "normal" baseball city where Fenway isn't sold out every night. Since the field of big market MLB teams is flattening because of new revenue streams, a decline of Red Sox competitiveness in 2013 could pitch Boston farther down the path of becoming a city with "normal" baseball fans -- just like most other cities. This could lower the Red Sox from the big market into the class of middle market teams, making it more difficult for the organization to attract top talent and again become an elite team that competes for the World Series title every season.

How do the Red Sox avoid this fate and compete in 2013? I'll be discussing that on this blog. The Red Sox won't return to the dismal attendance levels of 1965, but the Red Sox organization stands on the precipice of holding or losing the attention of sports fans in Boston. So, 2013 will be a crucial year for the organization.

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