Column: Baseball keeps sending the wrong message to its fans


Paul Newberry

AP National Writer

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — From Yoenis Cespedes turning spring training into a luxury car show to having to pay up to $49 to watch a game that doesn’t count, baseball doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the message it’s sending to the fans.

Forget the eternal hope of a new season.

The game is becoming a total turnoff.

Even on a warm, sunny day at Disney World, where the Atlanta Braves went through a leisurely workout that would normally be enough to soothe the soul, one couldn’t help but fret about the future of the national pastime.

Given that many struggling Americans haven’t had a raise in years, their frustration epitomized by a tumultuous presidential race, perhaps it wasn’t the best time for Cespedes to arrive at New York Mets camp in a different ride six days in a row.

The flashy outfielder pulled up in a Ford F-250, Lamborghini Aventador, Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, Jeep Wrangler and a pair of Polaris Slingshot three-wheel motorcycles — all of them customized to the tune of about $80,000. Of course, that’s a pittance compared to the cost of the actual vehicles, with the Lamborghini alone going for more than $300,000.

As if trying to show that luxury cars are so last week, Los Angeles outfielder Yasiel Puig floated the idea of buying a helicopter to fly to games at Dodger Stadium. The team quickly shot him down — well, not literally — saying there was no place for him to land.

Talk about #FirstWorldProblems.

This is not to say ballplayers can’t spend their money as they wish. Before defecting from Cuba, Cespedes’ primary modes of transportation were riding a bike or walking. Now, he’s got a three-year deal worth $75 million, so it’s understandable he’d want to get around in a bit more comfort.

“After I got here, I saw the possibilities,” he said through a translator. “I could have whatever I want, so I worked hard for it.”

And let’s not forget, the owners have even more money. A lot more money, though that hasn’t stopped them from taking billions in public subsidies to build more than a dozen new stadiums since 2000 — with yet another new, totally unnecessary ballpark on the way in Atlanta next year.

Through it all, the average fan must be wondering what’s in it for him, other than ever-increasing ticket prices.

While we’re on that subject, Disney has pulled off perhaps its greatest fantasy by persuading fans that it’s worth anywhere from $49 (for a lower-level seat) to $20 (which doesn’t include a seat at all, only a spot on a grass hill beyond the left-field wall) to watch the Braves, a rebuilding team that lost 95 games a year ago and has already made it clear that this whole season will be pretty much like spring training.

“That’s just the cost of baseball,” said Braves fan Brian Wilkerson, shrugging his shoulders. “You’ve got to fork it out.”

Similar con jobs are going on throughout the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.

At Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, a handsome grass berm in right field has been gutted and replaced with a 136-seat “Bullpen Club” — which probably should be known as the “Better Raise The Limits On Your Credit Card Club.”

For the low, low price of $52 to $60, you can woof down all the crappy food and guzzle all the sugary soft drinks you want (sorry, alcohol is not included) while looking at the backs of a bunch of Double-A-bound players wearing numbers such as 84 and 93.

Wilkerson, who has been attending spring training since he was a child, still enjoys the crack of the bat and the laid-back atmosphere. But he conceded that, as with all sports, things have changed. The quaintness he remembers when the Braves trained in West Palm Beach, Fla. nearly 20 years ago, the closeness to the players, that just isn’t there anymore. Spring training is big business, which is why so many teams have abandoned their longstanding homes to the allure of new, revenue-enhancing stadiums.

The Los Angeles Dodgers haven’t trained at Dodgertown since 2008. These days, Camelback Ranch in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs is their spring home, where they’ve got 13,000 seats, 12 luxury boxes and plenty of other ways to separate fans from their money.

“It’s more organized” is the way Wilkerson describes it. “I don’t feel like it’s quite as fan-centric as it once was.”

Those sort of comments don’t bode well, especially with a graying fan base and polls that show Major League Soccer is just as popular among young people. There’s no comparison to the NFL, which just keeps getting more and more popular, while the NBA is riding a loud, hip vibe that seems much more relevant in today’s world.

Baseball, it’s time to start caring about your fans.

What’s left of them.

Paul Newberry

AP National Writer

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