TEMPE, Ariz. — Roughly 15 million people watched each of the six games between Boston and St. Louis on TV last month, while here in the Phoenix metroplex a concurrent amateur World Series sparked every bit as much passion, maybe even more, among 324 adult baseball teams.
So, is baseball gaining ground, or in a slump?
TV ratings for the Big League Series were up this year, but there remains concern that baseball is losing its place as the Great American Pastime. The NFL has exploded in popularity — not just on Sunday afternoons but on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights as well. A routine Sunday night NFL game now draws more viewers than the World Series.
Fantasy devotees, video game fanatics and sports bar denizens are making football the armchair champ. However, you won’t find thousands of diehards — from 18-year-olds, to guys in their seventies — participating in football the way the teams here play hardball.
The players are as colorful as their team names, such as the Quad City Blasters, the Santa Ynez Sox or the SoCal Fire. They come from all walks of life, with even a few former Major Leaguers among them, united in their love of the game.
This annual event has grown steadily since its launch in 1988, and organizers keep creating new age divisions to accommodate players who have attended for a quarter century and just won’t quit. This year, a special division was launched for players over 75.
Part of the appeal is that all games are played at facilities used by Major League teams during Spring Training. And, of course, the Arizona weather in October is as ideal as in spring.
But there’s a lot more to it, having to do with a unique combination of team competition, individual achievement, fresh air, green grass and, of course, baseball lore. Most of the players here can talk a great game as well as play one. They congregate at Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale, arguably the nation’s best baseball-themed eatery, and recount how they turned a 6-4-3 double play, or lost a pop-up in the glaring Arizona sun.
As if this weren’t enough to confirm baseball’s magical appeal, there’s also the Arizona Fall League, in which 180 pro players from all 30 Major League teams play during October and November. This is one of baseball’s best, little-known attractions — with tickets costing $7 to see many of MLB’s top prospects at five Phoenix-area stadiums.
Other sports, like golf and tennis, are frequently cited as those that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. But the scene here each fall, when the very youngest pros and thousands of the nation’s best amateurs crowd the fields of dreams, reminds us that baseball is also a game that appeals to all age groups.
Maybe football will take over as America’s most popular sport, at least as far as ticket sales and TV ratings are concerned. But it’s hard to imagine that football will ever match baseball’s participatory passion.
The other night a waitress at Don & Charlie’s was talking about how her husband had been sleepless for weeks, waiting for the amateur World Series to begin. Imagine that. At age 60, her husband, Brian Kingman, was still overcome with anticipation about taking the mound — even after all the years he spent pitching for the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants.
What a great game.
Peter Funt’s new book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com.
©2012 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley. Email Cari@cagle.com, (800) 696-7561