Tuesday, February 9, 2010

And Another Thing. . .

I've gotten a lot of favorable response to the "re-invention" of baseball in my last blog. One other subject I wanted to cover but didn't manage to fit in was the fan experience at the ballpark. Living in Cooperstown, I don't get to many major league games any more, but I used to go to a lot, and have visited nearly 30 major league parks in my lifetime. I think I have a pretty good feel for the way it used to be and the way it is now, and I have a few suggestions on how to make a day at the ballpark more enjoyable.

First, stop pandering to the increasingly short attention span of the human species: cut out most or all of the between-innings crap. Is the game on the field so barren that spectators need marauding mascots or a shell game on the scoreboard to keep them interested? The time between innings used to be filled by talking with your neighbors (or companions), discussing the game, pondering the game, looking around and savoring the action and the fresh-air ambience. Now the game almost seems incidental to the mindless assault of frills between the innings, all blasted your way at volumes just below jackhammer level. My version of baseball would prohibit any stadium-generated noise at a decibel level more than one-half of the current norm. Fans shouldn't have to shout at each other to be heard unless it's because the action on the field has stirred them into a frenzy.

Second, give people a chance to get closer to the action by allowing them to move down into the good seats after the seventh inning. In a half-full ballpark, is there any reason for ushers to be hall monitors for the whole game? With even bleacher seats costing more than box seats did just twenty years ago, fans would be more likely to come to the park if they knew that they'd have a chance to get close to the action later. I can't emphasize this enough: there is nothing like sitting close to home plate for educating the fan about the difficulty of the game, the tremendous skill necessary to play it well, and the sheer excitement of sensing the tension on the field. You'll make better, more knowledgeable fans if you give them a little bit of that excitement. You just don't see what's happening well enough from the "cheap" seats. You can't see the break on a curve or the battle of nerves between a pitcher and a base-stealing threat. It might just be that some fans will be so enamored of getting close to the field that they'll spring for the more expensive tickets once in awhile. It might even be good for business in the long run.

This idea should be implemented in the major leagues today. It wouldn't work everywhere, of course. In parks that are usually full to near capacity, not many open seats will be available late in the game. You can't just have a stampede storming the box seats. Reasonable rules would have to be followed. For instance, you'd have to get to your seats before the start of an inning. It wouldn't be fair to the plutocrats who paid for the expensive seats to have a parade of peasants blocking their view of the game. Let them line up before the seventh inning ends--and this is much more feasible in the new ballparks which have excellent views from the concourses behind the stands. Alternate aisles, one for people exiting, the next one for people moving into empty seats, and so on. Get to your seat before the action resumes, or wait behind the stands as fans do now in the late innings.

The ushers will know what's available. Maybe the first five rows would be off-limits, though we've all seen people usurp those empty seats late in the game. My proposal would simply change the practice of generations of fans from a violation of policy to an invitation. Instead of people bribing the ushers to upgrade them, it would be a right, as long as the seats are available. Of course some people will stay where they are even if they're in the upper deck. If their area thins out, they'll have a better chance of getting a foul ball. If they're with children, they might not want to organize two expeditions--one to move downstairs and another to exit the park. They can still move down to the box seats in their section. To repeat, letting people learn that better seats are indeed better might persuade them to shell out the extra money next time.

In these tough economic times, major league teams are charging hefty prices to people visiting their venues. They should appreciate that people don't have to come to the park to follow their team or any other team. The focus should be on the game. Let them watch the game in peace, and let them sit--whenever it's feasible--where they can fully appreciate the difficulty and the beauty of the game. Once you've been within a hundred feet of a 95mph fastball or a fast-breaking 90mph slider, once the loudest sound you hear is the crack of the bat hitting the ball, once you get a close look at the clothesline trajectory of a catcher nailing a runner trying to steal second base, the game will never look the same on television either.

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