- Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Thursday, April 1, at approximately 10:30 p.m. on NBC Sports California after "A's Postgame Live" and at approximately 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area after "Giants Postgame Live."
More than perhaps any major sport played in America, baseball is about memories. Childhood memories, to be specific. Before Pop Warner football went national and long before there was AAU basketball, it was baseball that captivated most sports-minded youngsters.
It didn’t need much space, as football does. It didn’t require construction, as basketball does. With only a ball and two gloves, adults and kids, or siblings, could play catch.
Add a bat, and you’ve got competition. And the making of memories.
That simple pleasure, in place for most of the 20th century, has faded with the decades. Football has been the most popular sport in America for more than 40 years. In a 2018 Gallup pool, basketball popularity surpassed that of baseball for the first time – and soccer was only two percentage points behind.
What happened? The devolution of baseball’s popularity is a topic of discussion with former MLB players Shooty Babitt and Randy Winn, both panelists on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” Thursday night on NBC Sports Bay Area.
“They talk so much about technology and how great it is, and I can’t disagree,” Babitt says. “But it also has been a detriment to society, in my opinion. As kids, we raised ourselves. Our parents were working. We knew that when the street lights came on, we were supposed to be home. But all during the day, we were at the park. And depending on what time of the day, or what season it was, that’s the sport that we played.”
Baseball once ruled the spring and summer, particularly in the Bay Area. Games involving all levels of organized youth leagues – and all races – took place on fields throughout the region. If there was a park, there was baseball.
If there is a park nowadays, there might be basketball – might, as even playground basketball courts are shrinking in number. Baseball is, in most areas, barely there. If at all.
“When you’re out driving around, whether it’s a weekend or a weekday, you see less people on baseball fields,” Winn says. “You see less kids just out playing catch. Or, like me and my brother did, invent games around baseball. Just go to the park with a tennis ball and a plastic bat, or a metal bat, and invent some sort of game.
“When I was in Little League, I would go to the field at like 8 a.m. – my game might not be until noon – and we would play Pickle, we would play Pepper, we’d play Three Flies Up. Just play all day, then play my game and then stay after and continue playing.”
The game was such a staple that neighborhood kids would simply go to the park, create a field with makeshift bases and choose sides.
Kids in the 1950s and ‘60s idolized Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Stan Musial and Sandy Koufax and Robert Clemente and Bob Gibson. The 1970s belonged to the likes of Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan and Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt, all of whom played into the 1980s.
By the 1990s, the breadth of organized baseball for children began to narrow. Some youth leagues went under. Sponsorships became more challenging. Some kids turned to basketball, while the athletic dreams of others were lost to drugs and gangs.
Meanwhile, youth baseball became restricted to those that could afford it. Travel baseball raised the ante on competition, with parents paying thousands to instructors in hopes of giving their kid an edge.
The cost of traveling to tournaments, often out of state, was prohibitive for a considerable segment of youngsters who had an interest.
Though most of those aced out are people of color in underserved communities, the cost can be great enough to force hard decisions among all races living a middle-class existence.
Sadly, there is nothing to indicate baseball is making a spirited attempt to recapture Black youth, or that is making a stirring comeback of any kind.
Sometime during Generation Z and the millennial generation, the broad connection with baseball was broken – as was, for many, the more important family bond.
“My first memories of baseball are playing out in front of the house with my dad,” Winn said. Playing catch. Playing strikeout. Baseball can be played, as Winn said, in the front yard with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers.
“My mom taught me how to play baseball,” Babitt says. “The very first time I played catch it was with her. She loved Willie Mays and loved baseball. That’s where my love of the game came from.”
I know the feeling, Shooty. My dad had a passing interest in baseball. He bought my gloves and took me to games. My mom was such a fan that she wore her cap to the ballpark. That even as Alzheimer’s disease encroached on her faculties, she would occasionally ask me if Rickey was still playing.