Will baseball lose future generations to short attention spans?

Justin Edmonds

Wait, what was that?

Tom Verducci has an article up at Sports Illustrated that an editor titled "As Fernandez goes down, here's a solution to arm injury epidemic" Now that we’ve settled that issue, there’s a passage in there that grabbed my attention:

There happens to be another compelling reason to lower the mound besides saving the elbows of pitchers: the game needs offense. People, especially inside the game, are not paying nearly enough attention to how the game has been bastardized in just the past five years by the increase in velocity and the specialization of bullpens. Games are getting longer and longer with less and less action -- a terrible combination in any era, but especially this one in which commerce and culture move at a quickened pace.

Look, I know my audience. You people know who Eddie Joost is. Do you have opinions on Rajai Davis? Good, we do, too. So if I stand on a table right now and chant, "The game's just fine! The game's just fine! THE GAME'S JUST FINE!" for 1,000 words, I would expect you to bang your knives and forks in concert. I'm pretty sure I know what you think. We wax rhapsodic about Opening Day and talk like George Will when discussing the elegant simplicity of the infield fly rule. And for the most part, the hardcore baseball fan loves a good pitcher's duel. A 1-0 game? I'm there. You're there. Let's talk about it together.

But we're in a bubble. Call it the Rajai Davis bubble. We're in, and we're not going anywhere. Baseball is good to us if it's played by 2000 or 2014 rules. It's probably not a bad idea, then, to look at it from the other side. Is baseball too slow, too uneventful for the next generation?

Dunno. Maybe.

It's a question worth asking. More importantly, it's a question baseball should be asking. The progression of the Internet age has moved from using computers to send long letters instead of bothering with stamps, to five-minute videos, to cramming stuff artfully into a six-second Vine. I've got a Kickstarter going for my app "Flink," which lets you taste various two-second audio clips. Because who in the hell has time for six seconds of video these days? If you give me money now, you'll be rich later.

The people interested in a Vine just might not be interested in a pitcher stepping off, looking at first, stepping off, looking at first, waiting for the catcher to come out, having the catcher come out, talking to the catcher, watching the catcher return, looking in, setting, and throwing a ball, before getting the ball back, looking at first, looking at first, setting ...

Baseball might not appeal to folks with short attention spans. And here's what can be done to get those people into baseball: Nothing.

That isn't to say that changes can't be made, that the pace of the game can't improve, or that two-and-a-half hours aren't better than three. The game will evolve, and the powers that be will tweak the game to make it better, ostensibly. We've seen it with the wild card and the fifth playoff spot in each league. The game isn't concerned with the traditionalists as it is with its own popularity.

That's not the question, though. The question is how can the game compete with sports like the NFL and NBA to get the attention of a "culture that moves at a quickened pace." It never will. Not without bastardizing the game and making it unrecognizable. Baseball is a lengthy movie, for better or for worse. It's the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with spurts of action and wonder sandwiched by hours of walking around. There's no way to make it a Vine without making it something different altogether.

What can the sport do to be all things to all people? Seven innings. Lowered mounds. Shorter fences. Two strikes and eight balls. Rabbit baseballs made out of vulcanized rubber. Dunk tanks. Umpires with t-shirt cannons. And even then, even after making the game something it isn't, there isn't a way to compete for the shortest of attention spans. It's not how the game is designed. No matter how much you fidget with it, it's still a template of 1. Get baseball, 2. strategize with hand signals, 3. throw baseball, 4. when nothing happens, repeat step 1. It will always take more than a couple hours, assuming commercials aren't going away, and it's always deliberate. It's a deliberate game by design, and that's never going to change.

All baseball can do -- other than make the tweaks and adjustments it's proven it can make -- is hope it becomes a respite for the culture moving at a quickened pace. Hope it can become the weekend hike in the woods for people who want to sit in the sun and drink an expensive beverage of choice for three hours.

So far, not bad.

Screen_shot_2014-05-15_at_9.31.23_am_medium

That's not telling us anything definitive other than people aren't leaving the sport in droves. We're deep into the short-attention-span era, and baseball is still doing just fine. And that's compared with the early '00s. Forget about the attendance figures from the '70s and '80s; baseball is absolutely crushing those numbers. Considering the TV deals and Internet media money, it's safe to say that baseball hasn't lost the Twitter generation just yet.

There's no way to make baseball a game for short attention spans. If the world's heading that way, baseball's only hope is that there will still be a need for people to turn the short attention spans off. As someone who wishes several times every day for a treehouse, a projector, and video of a completely meaningless Mario Soto/Vida Blue matchup from 1985, I can see the appeal for baseball. The question is if the unwashed masses will see it, too.

My guess: It'll be fine.

The dunk tanks, though. Take the dunk tanks seriously.

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