Is Fixing Attendance a Realistic Goal for MLB?
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: MLB’s attendance issues; Mike Trout learning a new language; Manny Machado getting robbed by a fuzzy alien monster; and much more.
This Week In … Empty Stadiums!
Nobody wants to go to Blue Jays games. On Monday night against Minnesota, Toronto drew a mere 12,292 fans into Rogers Centre, despite the appeal of Marcus Stroman on the mound and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the plate. That’s in line with the season as a whole up north: The Jays rank just 19th in average attendance at 20,451 per game—and that represents a massive drop of close to 9,000 fans each contest compared to 2018.
That’s been the case for the league as a whole. Eleven teams are currently below the 20,000 per game mark, with Miami not even cracking 10,000. Per USA Today, a dozen teams saw drops in attendance compared to last March and April, and the league overall posted nearly the same figures this year as it did last year around this time—and 2018 represented the lowest numbers in a decade. Unsurprisingly, rebuilding and non-contending teams are seeing the sharpest decreases: The Jays, Giants, Royals and Marlins are four of the five biggest losers (the first-place Twins are the fifth, though persistent cold weather in Minnesota is likely a factor there). But good or bad, the end result is the same: fewer people willing to go to a game in person.
That should be expected. Baseball is plagued with tanking teams and rosters full of nobodies. Going to a game, meanwhile, has never been more expensive, between ticket prices, concessions, parking, and everything else. At the same time, it’s never been easier to watch a team through a variety of increasingly convenient mediums—nor have there ever been more entertainment options as opposed to a sport that takes three-plus hours to play and features less and less on-field action.
That’s a lot of issues to overcome if MLB wants attendance figures to rise. But is that even a realistic goal? Fans have already shown they don’t want to watch bad teams go through the motions while waiting for prospects to show up. As Rob Arthur noted for Baseball Prospectus, those decisions to rebuild end up costing franchises multiple years of in-person fan interest; it takes a while for folks to decide to care again. Besides, teams care more about getting the most money out of each person, not the most people possible. That’s why $12 beers are the norm, and why teams like Tampa did away with their cheapest seats in the upper deck of sparsely attended Tropicana Field.
When it comes to fixing the attendance problem, then, is there anyone who actually considers that an issue? There are so many revenue streams for teams nowadays, most of them completely divorced from fan attendance or even interest. Baseball is a booming business, and while gate receipts are down, how much does that matter when each team is drawing tens of millions from regional and national TV contracts?
This, then, may be the new norm. So long as teams don’t try to keep their prices high, then fans will continue to stay away, or just watch from home. And so long as the owners keep raking in the millions, they likely won’t care. Empty stadiums and thin crowds could very well be the sport’s future—one where declining figures no longer make the news.
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
The promised trip to the fireworks factory that was supposed to be Guerrero’s major league career hasn’t panned out as such. Heading into Monday night, the would-be superstar had just five hits, one RBI and zero homers in 30 at-bats. That certainly doesn’t make it easy to have a section dedicated to the awesomeness that should be Vlad Jr.’s fiery destruction of pitchers across the country.
Yet I’ve locked myself into this space, and so I’ll use it this week to note the eerie path that Guerrero has walked—namely, one in the shadow of his father. His debut came in Canada, where Vlad Sr. made his name (albeit in a different city, but for my purposes and as an ugly American, I’m just going to act as if the entire country is one identical and tiny whole). Next up: Anaheim, where his dad won an MVP award and starred for the Angels for years. And after that: Texas, one of the last stops in Vlad Sr.’s career and where he finally made it to a World Series, and whose current manager, Chris Woodward, played with Vlad the Elder for Toronto’s Triple A team in 2012.
Freaked out yet? No? Well how about after this little mind-blowing bit of trivia?
[exhales utterly massive bong hit]
Clearly, the fates have willed Vlad Jr. to this particular place and this particular time. As such, he must struggle at first because that’s what the universe demands. Like Indiana Jones retrieving the Holy Grail to save his father in The Last Crusade, only in the footsteps of Vlad will he proceed.
This Week In … The War On Mascots!
Man versus Mascot is the battle that will rage forever—a true Long Night in which the forces of good and evil must clash for the fate of the world. Last week saw the latest and greatest fight yet between humanity and its felt-covered enemy, when Manny Machado and the beige abomination that is the Braves’ Blooper engaged in a duel without mercy.
To start, here’s Machado gaining an early advantage by tricking the dastardly Blooper with a move that even a baby wouldn’t have fallen for, speaking to the low intellect and ferality inherent to all mascots.
Seeking revenge, Blooper pulled a fast one of his own, offering Machado a shoeshine and then making off with his wallet afterward.
But apparently petty theft wasn’t enough for this misshapen creature of darkness, because the next day, he graduated to stealing the entirety of Machado’s $300 million contract with the oldest con in the world: a fake autograph book that’s actually an oversized novelty check.
Ultimately, though, Machado struck a decisive blow for humankind when he stole his money back (although he also lost in Rock Paper Scissors, so maybe this is a tie).
Tune in later this month, when the Padres visit New York and Machado has to contend with the King Abomination of mascots: Mr. Met.
This Week In … ¡Mike Trout En Español!
Is there anything Mike Trout can’t do? MLB’s resident god figure hits, fields, runs and throws like someone created in a dream, and he’s sheer joy to watch. This weekend, though, he took his game international—Mexico, to be exact—and showed that, at least in one area of life, even he isn’t perfect.
During the Angels’ series in Monterey with the Astros, various players were asked to address the media in Spanish. That included Trout, and if you want an idea of how good his language skills are, check out his face the moment he realizes exactly what’s been requested of him.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Trout express fear before, and yet here we are.
For what it’s worth, his attempt at Spanish isn’t terrible! “Buenos dias” is correct, and while he picked the wrong pronoun in trying to introduce himself—“Te” instead of “Me”—that’s an easily understandable mistake for a gringo to make. Maybe, though, Trout is just innovating. Consider this attempt on Instagram to branch out in another language.
“Thank you for bull,” Trout tells MLB Mexico, though maybe in this case he did actually buy livestock from a social media person.
But does this mean Trout—or Miguel Trucha, as it were—is truly bad at Español? At least one person is here to defend his honor: his high school Spanish teacher.
Finally: something in which Mike Trout is merely good.
This Week In … Derek Dietrich, Trickster God!
Derek Dietrich is already a favorite of Nine Innings, mostly for this absolutely perfect bat drop and stare after a mammoth home run off Chris Archer (one that got him plunked in some silly unwritten rules beef settling). This past week, though, saw him emerge as MLB’s resident cosplay specialist. On Sunday, with the Reds playing the Giants in throwback uniforms, Dietrich got into the spirit by giving himself a period-appropriate handlebar mustache—with, uh, eyeblack.
(Note: I don’t think players back then went so cavalierly unbuttoned, lest their wanton display of skin and chest hair inflame the passions of any fans of the fairer sex.)
Then on Monday, amid a bee invasion of Great American Ball Park during the series finale versus San Francisco, Dietrich decided to help out—or try to, anyway.
Please note that Dietrich didn’t actually solve the issue; instead, two random beekeepers in attendance helped corral the 50,000-plus (!) bees. But at least he tried, and for that, he deserves some love.
This Week In … Not Trying Too Hard!
Speaking of Monday’s Reds-Giants game: It was a laugher, 12–4 in favor of Cincinnati, with San Francisco throwing in the towel in the eighth inning by putting roly-poly third baseman Pablo Sandoval on the mound. This wasn’t Sandoval’s first stint as a pitcher: Last season, he threw a scoreless inning of relief against the Dodgers in a blowout. That apparently was no fluke, as against the Reds, he hit a batter but got a double play to put up another zero.
If that weren’t enough, Sandoval also hit a home run and stole a base on Monday; he’s the first player to homer, swipe a bag and pitch in the same game since Mudcat Grant pulled the trick for Cleveland back in May 1964.
So what’s Sandoval’s secret? Intense concentration? A dedicated, monastic focus to his craft? An white-hot determination to be the best no matter what the task?
So there’s the answer, kids: Don’t take things too seriously, and you too can succeed when all else expect you to fail.
This Week In … Who Needs Craig Kimbrel?
Every week until he’s signed, I’ll take a look at which teams need free agent Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball, the most, and declare one the “winner.”
For the 2019 season—one in which they’ll be favored to win their division if not the pennant and the World Series beyond it—the Dodgers will shell out somewhere just south of $200 million in payroll. It’s a staggering sum of money—enough to pay for the Rays’ 40-man roster three times over, or finance your own mid-tier Marvel movie. And after having dumped more cash into their team than the federal government does into the National Endowment of the Arts, Dodgers ownership is reluctant to spend even more. At a certain point, they’re probably thinking, shouldn’t close to a quarter of a billion dollars be enough?
Not when it comes to the bullpen, apparently. Los Angeles relievers have an ERA of 4.80, eighth-worst in baseball. Closer Kenley Jansen has a 4.67 ERA and four homers allowed in 17 1/3 innings. Top offseason addition Joe Kelly has a 10.13 ERA in 13 1/3 frames. No one but human quicksand trap Pedro Baez has been remotely reliable for Dave Roberts. All three of the Dodgers’ losses last week came at the hands of the bullpen, including two walkoffs—the worst of which was the Padres beating Jansen with a Hunter Renfroe grand slam on Sunday. It’s a unit that’s struggling to deliver results.
The common refrain for Craig Kimbrel is that all he costs is money. That means different things to different teams, and certainly the men who own them are always loath to part with more of their filthy lucre. But in the case of the Dodgers, when you’ve already climbed this far up the mountain, why stop short? What’s another $12–15 million on the pile if it makes a difference between a championship and a third straight October watching someone else celebrate? That, ultimately, is what the money is for—even if you’ve already spent a ton of it just to get here.
Also receiving votes: Everyone, everyone should have Kimbrel, will someone please just sign Craig Kimbrel already, come on
This Week In … Good Reads Around The Web!
• “‘Baseball Was My Goal: Why ‘Jeopardy!’ champion James Holzhauer first saw himself in a MLB front office | Marc Carig, The Athletic
The man dominating Jeopardy!, unsurprisingly, grew up a baseball nerd who religiously read Bill James and Baseball Prospectus and made his own Excel stat sheets. Yet somehow he’s not currently in a front office. Yet.
• “What Noah Syndergaard did is so rare—it deserves its own name” | Sam Miller, ESPN
I’m always here for a bit of historical baseball rarity coupled with some good old-fashioned pitcher dominance.
• “Tim Anderson Is Going To Play the Game His Way” | Stephanie Apstein, Sports Illustrated
Taking some time to promote our own work, in particular this lovely feature on Anderson, a top-notch dude, by a top-notch writer. [waits patiently for bosses to up salary]
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Rick Schu, third baseman, Philadelphia Phillies (Donruss 1988).
Rick Schu waited and waited and waited. Signed by the Phillies in 1980, he was their third baseman of the future, the heir apparent to franchise legend Mike Schmidt. He was called up to the majors toward the end of 1984, the 13th season of the then-35-year-old Schmidt’s career. Schu’s day was certainly, surely coming.
It never did. Though Schu was the regular starter at the hot corner in 1985 while Schmidt moved to first, he never locked down the job. Schmidt kept putting off retirement and hitting like an All-Star. He moved back to third in ’86 (likely in part because Schu had made 20 errors there in ’85) and played 160 games that season, followed by 147 in ’87, while Schu appeared in a grand total of 184 over those two years as a backup infielder. He never got another chance: With Schmidt still starring, the Phillies dealt Schu to the Orioles at the end of March 1988. “I loved Philadelphia and the Phillies,” he told the Washington Post’s Richard Justice that spring. “But it got depressing. It looked as if I’d spend my prime years sitting on the bench.”
Schu lasted just one year with the Orioles, hitting .256 with four homers, and was sold to the Tigers in May 1989, for whom he hit a meager .214 in limited time. That same month, Schmidt finally called it quits, retiring due to a shoulder injury. Schu’s time had come at last—only it was far too late.